Principles in Art
Last evening I sat before my computer browsing a series of photographs that I had taken of one of our cats. I was looking for one or two that might be worth the time and effort to produce attractive prints. Of our three animals, she is the one who most appeals to me, the one I most like to watch and to photograph. Since she was just a kitten, she has charmed me with her beauty and playful behavior. But as I scanned through the group of photographs I wondered just what it is that has such a pull on me. It seems more than affection; she’s not a cuddly animal who at every opportunity jumps into one’s lap to be stroked. I finally chose one of the exposures to work on in my “electronic darkroom.”
What I felt during that hour or two was the sensual stimulation that has always drawn me to photography, an emotional charge that is beyond easy description. I sometimes feel it when I observe through the viewfinder of my camera, but mostly it is as I work on the image, nudging tone values and manipulating the composition, seeming not to create the picture but simply to facilitate its impact.
I’m pretty sure that part of my emotional response to the pictures of our cat has to do with how I feel about her; someone who doesn’t like cats or who has not had the year of relating to this one as a fellow creature might not share all of my response to her picture. Most portraits of people we don’t know are just pictures of people and leave us with little or no emotional response. Not so for Johannes Vermeer’s stunning portrait “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Nor for the scenes in the recent film of the same name in which Scarlett Johansson, in the role of the girl, posed for that famous painting—so innocently provocative that only a person made of wood could help from responding. That indescribable emotional response to beauty.
When I listen to music, I think that part of what I feel is similar to that of looking intently at a visual work of art. Recently I’ve been re-reading Aaron Copeland’s book What to Listen for in Music, first published more than sixty-five years ago. I’d found the book and read most of it during one of my personal research efforts into “why do certain notes sound good together?” with which I was preoccupied for several decades. Copeland didn’t have any direct answers to my question at the time, so the book was put on a shelf, where its pages have become yellow and limp.
A new friend, responding to an essay on my Web site, pointed me to the book regarding other musical questions I had expressed, so I pulled it down off the shelf and began again.
One of the first things that struck me was Copeland’s admission that some of the subtleties in, say, rhythm and melody, defy analysis.
“. . . if the idea of rhythm is connected in our imagination with physical motion, the idea of melody is associated with mental emotion. The effect upon us of both these primary elements is equally mysterious. Why a good melody should have the power to move us has thus far defied all analysis. We cannot even say, with any degree of surety, what constitutes a good melody.”
This, of course, related directly to my research question, although I don’t remember noticing it on that first reading twenty years ago. Since then, I have settled in my mind the rougher outlines of my question—enough, at least to get that particular monkey off my back. Now, however, the quotation ties into more recent questions I’ve had, regarding how our minds actually work—how we relate our experiences to memories and other mental phenomena.
Neurobiologists and neuropsychologists study the ways our minds organize what we experience. Theorists such as Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett offer us lay people explanations for how neurons and synapses function to give us the illusion, at least, of what we call consciousness. At a little higher level, we say we “understand” things because our minds put things together according to certain similarities that we may notice, either consciously or unconsciously. Explaining our emotional responses is still a work in progress.
As Copeland points out, “We cannot even say . . . what constitutes a good melody.” On the same level, we cannot say, with any degree of surety, what constitutes a good architectural work, or a good photograph. But there are aesthetic principles that have been garnered over the centuries. That, of course, is what his book is about—that, and how the lay person might discern them and appreciate more her or his experience of music. “What to look for” and “what to listen for” are attempts to sensitize us to principles.
At another level, principles are not enough. Once we’ve learned the principles, just as once we’ve learned our multiplication tables, we need to go deeper in our minds to “get” art, whether musical or visual or tactile or whatever medium is being accessed. (Is mathematics one of the arts? Ask a mathematician what she thinks.) Copeland’s book describes the aspects of music that are amenable to generalization and perceptible to the logical part of our minds. In the same way, countless books on photography discuss compositional elements, tonal qualities and color balance. There are principles one can learn with a bit of study and practice. Still, principles don’t guarantee that gut response.
I remember the first time I heard the perpetual motion theme from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. It was playing on the radio, to which I had been giving only peripheral attention, and I was suddenly and completely gripped by the music. Everything else was mere background.
Most of my life I have yearned to be able to play a musical instrument—to be able to experience, somehow, the same feelings I have when working on a meaningful photograph in my computer, attempting to facilitate somehow the expression of beauty. Performing music is not the same as composing it, unless one happens to be another Keith Jarratt during one of his brilliant improvisational concerts of the 1970s. A photographer is almost never the creator of the beauty he sees in his viewfinder or on his computer screen. It seems he’s both—the artist and the audience, enjoying the emotional grip of witnessing beauty while contributing, somehow, to the process.
Some might say that to try to analyze the experience of art is detrimental to the enjoyment, that analysis breaks it up even as it tries to break it down. Even if that is true for the audience (and I’m doubtful about that), the artist must do just that, consciously or unconsciously, applying the principles of the craft. But I’ve never met one who would want to give up the experience in order to be only the audience.
Donald Skiff, September 5, 2007