The Impossible Case of Seeing Music

The Impossible Case of Seeing Music

Clarke Bustard
Photo by Eric Dobbs

Might an appreciation for contemporary art translate to an appreciation for contemporary art music?

Don’t count on it. That’s my conclusion after a career of covering music, garnished by a side gig covering the visual arts in the last few years.

The creators of visual art—especially artists under 30, who presumably populate the cutting edge of their art forms—are far more likely to listen to and interact with performers of rock, jazz, urban, or world music than composers whose names precede colons in concert program books. If contemporary visual art has a musical component or analog, it’s almost always one from popular culture. Nothing new there. It was true of pop art in the 1960s and ’70s, dada and surrealism in the 1920s and ’30s, even impressionism in the late 19th century.

John Cage, whom the art critic Robert Hughes dubbed “the Marcel Duchamp of music,” was advising artists 50 years ago to “avoid a polar situation” of high art and low or popular culture, advocating “Yes-and-No not either-or.” “Yes-and-No” compositions—concert music drawing on folk or vernacular sources—can be found throughout the history of Western art music; but composers, at least from the late 18th century onward, meant to evoke popular culture not become part of it. The same may be said of visual artists, from Duchamp and Salvador Dali to Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol.

American pop artists, however, were evoking pop culture in the present tense, not from the historical distance of most composers’ pop references. When Warhol unveiled 200 Campbell Soup Cans in 1962, there was no analogous work of art music, nor would there be for more than a decade, until Philip Glass started cycling arpeggios. That, historically speaking, was pretty quick turnaround time for a new wrinkle in visual art to be reflected in art music. It usually takes more like a generation.

The romantic movement in painting dates from the late 18th century; romantic music emerged around 1830. “Impressionist” was coined as a label for a style of painting in 1874; the music dubbed impressionist (to the displeasure of its greatest master, Claude Debussy) began to appear shortly before 1900. Expressionist art had been a going concern for 30 years or more before Morton Feldman set out to write an expressionist music.

There aren’t many examples of good composers who also produced good visual art. Arnold Schoenberg may be the most prominent. Look at his paintings. Do you find them stylistically complementary to his music? Or to music of the preceding generation? Or to any music?

One wonders whether the expressionist artists of the 1950s and ’60s really heard any equivalence to their art in Feldman’s music. Or, for that matter, whether Claude Monet heard his paintings translated to sound by Debussy.

Why should they? Most visual art—painting, print, sculpture, installation—occupies space. Music occupies time. A viewer can spend time on art, wandering through its contours, colors, textures, perspective, or the eyes can take in the whole thing in an instant.

The ears can’t do that with music, even with the bluntest musical statements. A single chord or accent says nothing outside the context of the sounds or silences that precede and follow it. But then it has become one instant among several instances.

Motive, time-consuming arts are another matter. Poetry, drama, dance, film, and video art, like music, have (or should have) beginnings, middles, and ends, and so can be combined with or be complementary to music. No surprise, then, that the history of musical/artistic cross-fertilization is full of collaborations between composers and choreographers (Igor Stravinsky/George Ballanchine, John Cage/Merce Cunningham) and composers and film-makers (Bernard Herrmann/Alfred Hitchcock, John Williams/George Lucas), while there are few cases of composers in active, real-time creative interaction with painters or sculptors. (Much as record company art directors might wish it were so, Gustav Mahler did not set Gustav Klimt to music, and Ornette Coleman did not make sound of Jackson Pollock’s paintings.)

“Painter friends accuse me of blindness,” Ned Rorem wrote in The New York Diary. Fifty years later, Rorem said: “You can’t compare the arts at all, even though people do it all the time. If the arts were all like each other, we’d only need one art.”

Even Richard Wagner’s epic quest for a “whole work of art” (Gesamtkunstwerk) did not embrace all art forms, at least not successfully. The Bayreuth set designs of Wagner’s day would have been rated puerile, painfully literal, by artists of the time. Let’s not even imagine what a choreographer of the 1860s would have made of Tristan und Isolde.

Today’s pop, jazz, and “experimental” musicians may seem more attuned to the work of contemporary visual artists—their creations clearly come from the same cultural gene pool; but seeing and hearing a creative cross-fertilization is still a stretch. The firmest linkages I can see and hear are attitudinal. Whimsy and irony, for example, are qualities that one finds plentifully in both contemporary art and contemporary music (and in contemporary literature, film, dance, etc.) Many of today’s visual artworks are iconic or ceremonial; that stance is also found in much contemporary music and choreography.

Modern art, since the rise of expressionism, has been primal, or stylized-primitive. So is much pop music (punk, grunge, hip-hop), many “performance pieces,” and some concert music (Steve Reich’s drum works, for instance).

And, of course, all contemporary art forms are conscious or subliminal products of a modern culture that refers to multiple ethnic cultures and historical eras.

In such an environment, almost anything can be seen or heard to complement almost anything else. Go to an opening at a gallery where there’s music being played—typically, a gallery of contemporary art that has engaged a group playing free jazz, world music, or whatever alternative rock is called now that it’s mainstream—and you may perceive some connection between what you see and what you hear.

But are you making an aesthetic judgment or immersing yourself in a scene?

Looking for parallels and linkages between art and music can be a diverting mental exercise, but it doesn’t really enhance understanding or appreciation of fundamentally different forms of expression. Art and music are different disciplines. They engage different sensibilities and elicit different responses in different time frames.

Savor both. No need to mix or match.


Clarke Bustard retired this spring after 27 years as music critic of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. For the last three of those years, he also covered visual arts for the newspaper.

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