THE VISUAL ARTS AND PERMANENCE
A little while ago, my blog article 'ANY REQUESTS' invited suggestions for discussion. This invitation remains open, so please do keep the ideas coming!
As the basis for today's article, let us look at the the following, kindly sent in by one of my readers:
“I am in awe of the courage that visual artists - painters, sculptors - hold firm in creating what is essentially a permanent art form. A musician can detach ego from performance and expression, and, apart from the mixed blessing that recordings offer, the music disappears the moment it is expressed. Visual art, on the contrary, remains. It seems to my outsider’s viewpoint to present an alarmingly revealing permanence, which cannot, once expressed, be escaped. I am interested in how you navigate this, or if, indeed, it is even a consideration for the artist.”
This is a very engrossing argument, giving rise to much thought.
The truth of the primary assertion cannot be denied; viz the permanence of most visual art both two and three-dimensional, though when we start looking at a certain sector of contemporary conceptual interactive art, things start to shift a little – literally. Perhaps 'Conceptual Art' is a topic for a future article.
Does music 'disappear the moment it is expressed' ? This is an interesting question, to which there is no simple answer. We need to consider diverse genres of music, and the degree to which they originate from a primal architectural structure. I will discuss this, and the matter of 'ego' later in today's article.
Lots to think about here – This may take a while!
“A permanent art form”.
A painting, drawing, mixed media piece or sculpture certainly constitutes a permanent utterance, when executed within conventional parameters. An artist conceives a piece, either in a progressive gestation of sketches and studies culminating in the final 'main event', or as a wilder, more spontaneous series of marks, catapulted forth out of a fertile subconscious. I have spoken myself, in interviews, of 'the artist's soul laid bare on the canvas' ; this can indeed be an inescapable fact, leaving the artist seemingly vulnerable and exposed to scrutiny. The same could be said of literature, as it may seem to express the finite.
In order to avoid an overly long article, my references in this piece will chiefly concentrate on abstract visual art. One of the advantages of abstraction is that we, the practitioners, can utter a bold visual statement while simultaneously cloaking it in mystery. Though I appreciate that consumers of art sometimes feel more comfortable with a painting for which there exist points of reference or a back-story, I admit that I like to be cryptic, both in my titles and in what I am prepared to say about a painting. Indeed, my impenetrable titles have attracted favourable attention. Abstract art is often about feeling, much more so than about the tangible or the finite. I want to make people think and, even more importantly, feel. Thought is not necessarily aided by things being presented on a plate, and feeling may become more poignant and personal if self-discovered.
My soul, then, is laid bare, but what is inscribed on it may not immediately be apparent.
UNTITLED (2016) - Haydn Dickenson
“A musician can detach ego from performance and expression, and, apart from the mixed blessing that recordings offer, the music disappears the moment it is expressed.”
Regarding live performance, the latter part of this statement holds true. Music's impermanence in this respect is a thing of heart-breaking wonder. Having witnessed a magnificent musical performance, we are aware that no moment of it is repeatable, any more than is the abstract pattern of clouds in the sky. A recording of that concert, listened to subsequently, may fall short in terms of the satisfaction it brings, for the electricity of the moment is missing.
Musicians may, however, lay down tracks in a recording studio in a different, more considered way from that in which they would perform in public, lending the recording an authenticity and an authority to be applauded. In this way a truly great recording can emerge as an enormous blessing, rather than a 'mixed' one. This holds especially true in the case of Western Classical Music, where adherence to a primal structure is paramount. Jazz and other genres which embrace improvisation to a greater degree, may exercise in the studio a comparable spontaneity to that which they would indulge in concert. The magic maybe just as intense, just as thrilling.
Does the music “disappear the moment it is expressed”? I think not. Most music, whether a pop song, a folk tune, an Indian improvisation, a rock number or a jazz standard emanates from some moment of creation that existed prior to performance. In jazz, the simple tune gives rise to flights of fantasy at the hands of a great musician (witness John Coltrane's astonishing treatment of 'My Favourite Things') but the tune itself existed before that, and will always do so. A great sitar player will spin mindblowing complexities in an improvisation lasting two hours or more, but the Raga that is the departure point for that music is a structure based on strict rules, one of very many existent Ragas that hold direct relevance to mood, the time of day, and the seasons of the year.
On the matter of Western Classical Music, permanence exists to an even greater degree. By its very nature, this genre of music is both creative and recreative in equal measure; a composer sits down and produces a composition, notating it in extreme detail - not only the notes to be played, but dynamics and other diverse aspects. The resulting composition, potentially one of great architectural complexity (though not in all cases), is in turn recreated by the performer, demonstrating an extraordinary profundity in terms of just how inimitable, diverse and unique individual interpretations of the same work can be. Regarding the matter of ego as mentioned by my reader, while some decry its incursion into performance, I do not. So long as ego does not become overly intrusive, it is precisely that factor which makes the creative/recreative aspect of classical music so absorbing.
We know of the struggles Beethoven endured in his life, or Mozart, Schumann, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Delius, Elizabeth Maconchy and countless others right up to the present day; incontrovertibly in my opinion, these towering figures laid their souls bare through musical compositions which remain as permanent as a painting, a sculpture, or a work of literature.
“Visual art...seems to my outsider’s viewpoint to present an alarmingly revealing permanence, which cannot, once expressed, be escaped. I am interested in how you navigate this, or if, indeed, it is even a consideration for the artist.”
How do I navigate the matter of permanence? No one can ever know what the artist really meant. We can speculate, we can try to put works into biographical context, but ultimately, it is only the artist who truly knows. Considering things in such a context, I am not alarmed by permanence – I hold enough back to keep people guessing.
CHAINS OF HABIT (2022) - Haydn Dickenson
Yesterday evening I was discussing my work over dinner with my agent and others. I pulled up a photo on my phone of a large canvas in oils on which I am working. One person described it as calming, another found it scary and disturbing!
Perhaps then, the interpretation of visual art is not so different from that of music. Permanence, allowing and even encouraging shifting reactions and analysis over time, is something to be celebrated.
Copyright Haydn Dickenson 2023