Art as Music, Music as Poetry, Poetry as Art, from Whistler to Stravinsky and Beyond
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Art as Music, Music as Poetry, Poetry as Art, from Whistler to Stravinsky and Beyond

Peter Dayan

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eBook - ePub

Art as Music, Music as Poetry, Poetry as Art, from Whistler to Stravinsky and Beyond

Peter Dayan

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About This Book

In 1877, Ruskin accused Whistler of 'flinging a pot of paint in the public's face'. Was he right? After all, Whistler always denied that the true function of art was to represent anything. If a painting does not represent, what is it, other than mere paint, flung in the public's face? Whistler's answer was simple: painting is music - or it is poetry. Georges Braque, half a century later, echoed Whistler's answer. So did Braque's friends Apollinaire and Ponge. They presented their poetry as music too - and as painting. But meanwhile, composers such as Satie and Stravinsky were presenting their own art - music - as if it transposed the values of painting or of poetry. The fundamental principle of this intermedial aesthetic, which bound together an extraordinary fraternity of artists in all media in Paris, from 1885 to 1945, was this: we must always think about the value of a work of art, not within the logic of its own medium, but as if it transposed the value of art in another medium. Peter Dayan traces the history of this principle: how it created our very notion of 'great art', why it declined as a vision from the 1960s and how, in the 21st century, it is fighting back.

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Chapter 1

Whistler’s Poetry

As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject-matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or of colour. (127)1
How, in this extraordinary sentence from Whistler’s ‘The Red Rag’, at once such a perfect summing up of an aesthetic and a bewildering tangle of incompatible notions, are we to take the word ‘poetry’?
Is it an art form using words? Such would doubtless be its primary, its proper sense, if it had any. But that cannot be its meaning here. We cannot believe that by ‘music is the poetry of sound’ Whistler means ‘music is the art form using words made of sound’. For Whistler was a firm believer in what his century called pure, or absolute, music: music that needs no words. Indeed, immediately after this sentence, he affirms:
The great musicians knew2 this. Beethoven and the rest wrote music – simply music: symphony in this key, concerto or sonata in that [….] This is pure music as distinguished from airs – (127)
Airs – the examples Whistler gives are ‘Yankee Doodle’ and ‘Partant pour la Syrie’ – are music to which words are attached, words which evoke subjects. Whistler considers them ‘commonplace and vulgar’. ‘Pure music’, on the contrary, needs neither words nor subjects. It must surely be this type of music – wordless music – that, for Whistler, is the ‘poetry of sound’.
But if wordless music is the ‘poetry of sound’, then poetry, it would seem, must be wordless. Obviously, this would be the exact opposite of the primary sense of the word ‘poetry’ evoked above. Which would be strange enough. It would also leave us at a loss to understand why Whistler bothers to use the word ‘poetry’ at all. If poetry is wordless, what distinguishes it from art in any other medium, indeed from art tout court? Why does Whistler not simply write ‘the art of sound’ and ‘the art of sight’? What has poetry, as distinct from painting or music, to contribute, if not words?
The second half of the sentence gives a clue that points in another direction. It suggests that ‘poetry of sound’ is somehow synonymous with ‘harmony of sound’; and ‘poetry of sight’ with ‘harmony of colour’. Poetry, then, would equal harmony; and ‘the subject-matter’ would have ‘nothing to do’ with either. This certainly squares with the next paragraph in ‘The Red Rag’:
Art should be independent of all clap-trap – should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confusing this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it, and that is why I insist on calling my works ‘arrangements’ and ‘harmonies’. (127–8)
‘Artistic sense of eye or ear’: the word ‘artistic’, in this sentence must refer not only to painting, perceived by eye, but also to music, perceived by ear; so, one might suppose, to art in general, including, doubtless, poetry, which can be perceived either by eye or by ear. Whistler, then, is here evoking a property common to art in all media: its independence of ‘clap-trap’, which maps neatly on to his earlier rejection of ‘subject-matter’; and this refusal of subject-matter explains the appeal to harmony, which clearly represents art cleansed of clap-trap, pure art, of which the archetype would be pure music: ‘symphony in this key, concerto or sonata in that’. But if music, wordless music, subject-free music, music as harmony, is the archetype of art, the privileged position of poetry, in the sentence from which I began, appears even more peculiar.
As Whistler would certainly have agreed, harmony is in the first place a matter of relationships, of ‘rapports’: for example, between sounds or colours. Poetry, at least traditional verse poetry, can indeed be analysed as containing such relationships. But, in every case, they depend on the appreciation of its subject-matter, as mediated through words. One cannot scan a line of poetry, or appreciate its sounds, without reference to its sense. Perhaps music is different. In Whistler’s time, it could indeed be taken as harmony without subject-matter. And painting, Whistler’s painting at least, could be seen as heading that way, towards abstraction and away from representation, towards an arrangement of colours and away from the expression of ideas. Poetry, however, appeared destined to remain an art in which harmony depended on subjects. Poets could (and did) revolt against the subject, but they could never finally evacuate it, and this was generally accepted at the time. When Baudelaire, for example, called literature the most ‘positive’ of the arts,3 he was referring precisely to this unavoidable function of reference, of the subject, in writing, mediated through the sense of words. And yet, curiously, it is poetry that Whistler had seemed, in the expressions ‘poetry of sound’ and ‘poetry of sight’, to name as the paradigm of art without subject.
The same paradox is perhaps even more conspicuous in Whistler’s Ten O’Clock, the lecture on art which he gave in 1885 and published three years later.4 The lecture is structured around a number of misconceptions concerning the nature of art which Whistler is concerned to dispel. The first of these misconceptions is the notion that any social body can ever be competent to judge art, still less to tell the artist how to proceed. For Whistler, the artist creates alone, without knowing exactly for whom; and his true audience, at the end of this first section of the lecture, turns out to be, not the people, nor even other artists, but ‘the Gods’ (the Gods of which religion? we are given no clue), whom he surpasses; for they can only marvel at the superiority of his Art over the Nature which they created; ‘and perceive how far away more beautiful is the Venus of Melos than was their own Eve’ (146). Whistler then asks why this truth is now so completely misunderstood; why it is that we now think mere humans have the right to judge art. The following section of the essay lays a large part of the blame at the feet of ‘the unattached writer’. The writer, says Whistler, sees in the painting only ‘a hieroglyph or symbol of story’.
He finds poetry where he would feel it were he himself transcribing the event, invention in the intricacy of the mise en scène, and noble philosophy in some detail of philanthropy, courage, modesty, or virtue suggested to him by the occurrence. (147)
Philanthropy, courage, modesty, virtue: the writer’s poetry, in other words, consists entirely of what Whistler had called, in ‘The Red Rag’, ‘clap-trap’ – emotional, philosophical, or anecdotal subject-matter. To the writer, this subject-matter has the immense advantage of being communicable. One can explain it to an audience; one can educate them in its ways. But, to Whistler, this poetry, the poetry of the writer, is plainly not art at all. It is, once again, anti-artistic clap-trap. In this sentence, therefore, the word ‘poetry’ certainly cannot be taken to signify a wordless, subject-free harmony. On the contrary, it seems to mean little more than ‘what writers esteem if they have no sense of what art really is, and value communication over beauty’ – exactly the opposite of what it meant in ‘The Red Rag’.
And yet, two paragraphs later in Whistler’s lecture, the word seems to shift meaning again, returning to its ‘Red Rag’ sense. It is realigned with art, with harmony, and opposed to what the mere wordsmith perceives.
Meanwhile, the painter’s poetry is quite lost to him – the amazing invention that shall have put form and colour into such perfect harmony, that exquisiteness is the result, he is without understanding – (147)
Let us ask again: why, here, does Whistler use the word ‘poetry’? Why persist in using a word that, as he has just reminded us by his use of it a few lines previously, inevitably evokes an art using words, when he seems determined to deny that his own art relates to anything that words can do?
From any rational point of view, this is certainly highly problematic. But the point that this book seeks to make is that this apparent problem is far more than that. Whistler appears to affirm the principle that art is harmony and is independent of subject-matter; but in the very terms of its affirmation, thanks to his reference to poetry, we are pointed towards the reasons for which that principle is untenable. This affirmation and its untenability are the fundamental building blocks of what we continue to see as great art. And the means by which the principle survived, indeed continues to survive, in spite of, as well as thanks to, its untenability, is precisely the means used by Whistler in this sentence. It is the reference, whenever the strictly artistic value of a work is under question, to the medium of a different art. Painting is poetry; music is poetry; music is painting, and poetry is painting; painting is music, and poetry is music: in the course of this book, we will encounter all these permutations, presented with all the genius for indirection that creates the profundity of art. The one constant is that music never remains simply sound, poetry never remains simply words, and painting never remains simply paint. To deny that constant is to threaten the very foundation of the values around which Whistler, like all the other artists who are the subject-matter of this book, built his life. Whistler certainly would not tolerate being told that his paintings were about their subjects. But he could tolerate even less being told that they were only paint.
* * *
‘For Mr Whistler’s own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated5 conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of wilful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.’ (1)
In A Pot of Paint: Aesthetics on Trial in Whistler v Ruskin,6 Linda Merrill pertinently asks why, exactly, in 1877, Whistler decided to sue Ruskin for publishing these words. After all, she points out, Whistler was hardly a stranger to controversy or forceful condemnation; but Ruskin was the only person he ever sued for libel. The motive cannot have been personal, for Whistler and Ruskin had never met (and never would set eyes on each other). The only known first-hand account of the moment when Whistler discovered Ruskin’s review is by the American artist George H. Boughton. Boughton published it more than a quarter of a century after the events he relates, and it is certainly not accurate in every material detail. It is nonetheless evocative and intriguing. Merrill summarizes the scene thus:
‘I shall never forget the peculiar look on his face as he read it,’ Boughton recalled years later, ‘and handed the paper back to me with never a word of comment, but thinking, furiously though sadly, all the time.’ After a few moments of reflection Whistler declared that Ruskin’s was the ‘most debased style of criticism’ he had ever encountered. Boughton suggested, tentatively, that the paragraph might be libelous. ‘Well,’ said Whistler, lighting a cigarette and taking his leave, ‘that I shall try to find out.’7
Of course, we shall never know what was really going through Whistler’s head that evening. Doubtless, as Merrill suggests, the prospect of winning a substantial sum in damages was attractive to him. But it does seem to me that if one carefully correlates Ruskin’s offending words with Whistler’s aesthetics, one can understand why he should have found them uniquely debased in style, uniquely thought-provoking and uniquely unacceptable. Ruskin had not merely insulted Whistler; he had put his finger precisely on the weakest spot in Whistler’s intellectual armour. For when he accused Whistler of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’, he was, in a crucial sense, and from a point of view that Whistler could not ignore, exactly right.
As far as I can tell, Whistler, in the course of the trial (as well as in his own account of it), carefully avoided any comment on those words, although they are the most celebrated of the entire case (hence the title of Merrill’s book); as if he knew only too well that he could not in conscience object to them. What he could object to, and did, was Ruskin’s association of this paint-flinging with ‘wilful imposture’. In other words, it was precisely because Ruskin’s assessment of his aesthetic was so close to the bone that he had to contest so vigorously the value judgement that Ruskin associated with it.
There is no real disagreement between Whistler and Ruskin concerning the nature of their respective beliefs, or the points in which they differ. For Ruskin, art in any medium is about the communication of ideas – the kind of ideas that can be expressed in words, and consequently, taught and learnt. As he wrote in the ‘memorandum of instruction’ for his counsel at the trial (reproduced by Merrill in her book):
The standard which I gave, thirty years ago, for estimate of the relative value of pictures, namely, that their preciousness depended ultimately on the clearness and justice of the ideas they contained and conveyed, has never been lost sight of by me since […].8
Ruskin’s emphasis, here, on the fact that his opinion dates from thirty years previously is not incidental. Throughout this memorandum and beyond, he clearly states an opposition, which is to my mind entirely correct, between his aesthetics, rooted in the first half of the 19th century, and those of what he calls ‘the modern schools’ (291), which, it seems to me, did indeed only become a serious influence on European painters after 1850.
These ‘modern schools’, says Ruskin, ‘conceive the object of art to be ornament rather than edification’.9 The artistic idea, for Ruskin, should, on the contrary, be edifying. This is precisely the notion that Whistler, not many years later, would be concerned to attack in the latter part of his Ten O’Clock. He draws a portrait of the enemy of true art which only too plainly resembles Ruskin, the university professor, the believer in art education, the priest of the principle that what matters in a painting is an idea that can be reprised in words:
Then the Preacher ‘appointed’!
He stands in high places – harangues and holds forth.
Sage of the Universities – learned in many matters, a...

Table of contents

  1. Cover Page
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright Page
  4. Contents
  5. List of Figures and Plates
  6. Introduction The Five Laws of the Interart Aesthetic
  7. 1 Whistler’s Poetry
  8. 2 Satie’s Art
  9. 3 Apollinaire’s Art
  10. 4 Braque’s Music
  11. 5 Ponge’s Music
  12. 6 Stravinsky’s Poetry
  13. Conclusion ‘That’s of course what poetry is’: Painting in Paris and London, December 2009
  14. Bibliography
  15. Index