By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
Any redneck will tell you, art is for fairies, meaning the gay. A fairy is a creature of the imagination, a gentle and benevolent spirit. The word spirit does not refer to anything in our prosaic world; spirit is something we can sense and experience, spirit stirring and shining in ourselves, in friends and loved ones, even in animals and plants. We say a horse or young person is spirited: full of energy, joy, feistiness, and life. Spirit is the essence of the life force, which scientists don’t recognize as a force apart from gravity, electromagnetism, and the nuclear forces; still, life is a cosmic force, like gravity extending throughout the universe, the fifth force of physics. Art is an expression of the life force, which could explain why so much great art has a spiritual quality. As to gays, American Indian devotees of the Great Spirit respected them, employed them as counselors, healers, storytellers, shamans. Indians called gays Two-Spirit persons, possessing male and female spirits in one body. Gay men and women, possessing female sensitivity and male aggressiveness are often prominent in the arts, exemplified by Michelangelo, da Vinci, or Tchaikovsky.
The American Psychological Association has ruled that homosexuality is not a disorder, but crude people call gays queer, in other words, odd and different, both personality traits useful in doing original work in the arts. Art is usually joyous and gay. Gay people, often without the responsibility of raising children, devote themselves completely to art, fulfilling themselves in their work, sometimes achieving greatness. In artistic ecstasy, the Two-Spirits approach the One Spirit. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God! The Lord is One.” Art, in all its myriad forms, is intrinsically One in its essence, possessing a basic unity (melody in music), obeying the same laws of aesthetics, because One source inspires the artist. The meditation melody from Massenet’s Thais, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, van Gogh’s Starry Night, Samuel Butler’s Adagio for Strings, all fine art pieces come to us like memories from another world, beautiful, idyllic, perfect.
Jules Massenet and Vincent van Gogh were not gay; neither was Pablo Picasso, the little satyr. To be an artist you need to be sensitive and creative, not necessarily gay. Besides, to a degree, all of us are Two-Spirits, pumping male-female hormones, with vestigial organs from the other sex.
Art of five or more senses
Artistic impressions enter us through the senses, five of them according to Aristotle and other authorities: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. Actually, these five are the exterior senses; we also have sense cells in the body’s interior that tell us about temperature, pain, and movement. We sense movement through kinesthesia from sensors in muscles, joints, and tendons. Kinesthesia is an essential sense for the art of dance, which we perform or enjoy vicariously with empathy by watching others dance. Music uses hearing, painting, sculpture and architecture sight, cuisine taste, perfumery smell, and intimacy touch. Some arts use two or more senses, such as film making, combining vision and hearing. Art comes to us through the senses, but the impressions from art are more than sense impressions; the senses are only channels of communication for something unitary and more profound, the pattern of life.
Music is a series of tones, vibrations in the air, entering the ears, setting the eardrums into motion, stimulating specialized cells inside. Painting, photography, film are light waves, vibrations in space, stimulating the retina of the eyes with millions of light sensitive cells. Thus artistic information enters the brain to entertain by stirring feelings. What about the skin? It has pressure and pressure transducers in the billions.
Skin has the most capacity as a channel of information. Skin was the sense organ in the beginning of animals and from it evolved all five kinds of sense cells through the specialization of skin cells. In modern life with our books, television, Internet, theater, and films, we use vision most of the time to enjoy artworks. Also, most of us earn a living with visual tools; we tend to live a sense-deprived, vicarious existence.
If we were more like wolves or dogs, as we were a long time ago, we would base our major art on smell. Adventures would be odorous, pleasures smelly, humor stinking, sexual intimacy mainly a matter of pheromones. Even now, some people do aromatherapy. The odor of rotting flesh thrills flies, buzzards, and wolves. Carnivorous plants in the jungle imitate this odor to attract flies to their maw, but most plants attract insects for pollination with the evolved art of gorgeous flowers and enticing aromas.
Other animals have sense capabilities we don’t possess to any degree, such as sonar in bats and magnetic field detection in migratory birds. Some people claim to have a sixth sense other than kinesthesia; they get vibrations from other people, permitting them to know intentions, friendly or hostile. I suspect the senders of vibrations do give some signals of how they feel and what sort of persons they are, signals the subconscious of the sensitive receiver is able to interpret. The artist is a sensitive too, perceiving vibrations in materials and subject, focusing with an inner sense on the subject much more intensely than others, retrieving information from the subject, creating information from the inner self.
The life force field
The varieties of artistic experiences are myriad; art is one because the life force field is one. The life force permeates the entire universe and animates all biological entities without any particular regard for the self-proclaimed Homo sapiens. What we sense of the life force is what we call spirit, something we experience in affection, devotion, and love, especially love (St. Paul: “God is love.”) which inspires so much art in music, song, dance, storytelling, in every creative endeavor; we know spirit but we can’t explain it in rational scientific terms.
With human populations and their air breathing machines constantly increasing to catastrophic levels for the earth and its living creatures, it’s hard to see the spiritual value of our lives; but value is not in the quantity of humans but their quality, exemplified in their arts.
Art is a form of communication from the life force to the creative artist and from the artist to us. Art usually communicates joy, even ecstasy, and can transmute even sad events into the sweetest nostalgia, such as we find in Asian music, particularly Chinese and Japanese music, sad sounding but pleasant. After they have passed by us, sadness, tragedy, pain, anguish adventure, and severe loss are interesting and pleasant to recount in recollection among friends. Even death is fascinating and romantic when great poets such a Homer or Shakespeare tell tales about such heroes as Achilles or Hamlet.
After the death of some persons, classical music or New Orleans jazz is played at their funerals, together with displays of flowers and encomiums. At a funeral we celebrate the departure of a loved one towards what we hope is a place better than the earth, to the paradise we imagine, the return of the soul to the Source of life or if we’re religious to God.
The source of life is the common thread passing through the immense variety of artistic forms: music, dance, painting, sculpture, architecture, drama, flower arrangement, breeding plants for show or for their aroma, grooming animals for show or to enjoy at home, raising beautiful race horses, paper creations like kites and origami, bonsai, tea ceremonies (Japanese or English), gardening and landscaping, film, story telling, creative cookery, perfumery, massage and sex, surfing, oriental rug weaving, clothing fashions (art you wear, as in the film “The Devil Wears Prada”), interior decorating, calligraphy. The essential laws of art being the same, one artist may inspire another; as examples, the poet Goethe’s Faust inspired Gounod’s opera of the same name and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Tchaikovsky’s orchestral work.
We appreciate art with our capacity for empathy, feeling into (translated from the German Einfühlung) another sentient being, experiencing the same sadness or happiness. If you want to know empathy look at a good dog doing tricks for a loving master. Empathy is the key that unlocks the joys of theater, film, literature, music, or the graphic arts. We share in the feelings of the artist or the protagonist portrayed in the drama. Our spirit merges with the spirit of the artist with whom we share the common essence of life. Without such a merging, art has no effect, no impact. Upon seeing “The Man of Mancha,” from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Miguel Cervantes, we sing along with Don Quixote, “To dream the impossible dream, to reach the unreachable stars…” The effect is in the design of the artwork.
An artistic work is a synthesis
Artistic pieces possess design, structure, pattern holding together, just like any living thing as opposed to a bunch of random elements or noise. Researchers have shown that listeners thrill to a fine musical composition, transported to a relaxed meditative state; but music students don’t experience such a relaxation response when they analyze the composition to understand its technique. When we analyze an art piece, we cease to enjoy it, although we may learn how it works. Try to explain a joke to people who don’t get it; you won’t make them laugh. It’s like dissecting a frog; it stops living. A living thing is a suitable structure of material elements activated by the field of the life force. When the structure loses its integrity, plant, animal, or human collapses and the life force withdraws, followed by decay, death, and drabness, the person gone, unable to communicate with us for evermore, except with an artwork or other legacy created during life.
Art expresses and communicates
Artists communicate to us what they think and feel. They make an impression on us to rouse, impact, stimulate, stir, and touch us, giving us longings; deeply moved we cry from happiness. What an artist can’t afford to do is to leave us cold, impassive, or bored; the artist must excite our interest or we move on beyond what is displayed. Above all your artistic creation must be interesting. Like birds and other animals which practice courtship with colorful displays, elegant dances or lovely songs, artists court their audience or they lose out; the curtain goes down. People walk out, demanding a refund for their tickets; the unsavory dish goes back to the chef with no compliments; the reader tosses aside the boring book, turning on a television drama, comedy, or romance.
What about the art of arranging words in a book or an essay such as this? Poetry or prose is a sequence of letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs, with rhythm, elegance, a theme, and meaning, stirring our feelings. Winston Churchill said to the British in 1941, “I have nothing to offer you but blood, sweat and tears.” William Jennings Bryan spoke the memorable words, “You shall not crucify this nation on a cross of gold,” appropriate in 2011. Going further back, Patrick Henry stirred a revolution in America with, “I know not what others may think, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.” Even in old English, Shakespeare’s poetry and dramas live and powerfully inspire us today.
For humans, the written or spoken word is the most powerful medium in artistic communication. “In the beginning was the Word,” as it says in the Christian Gospels, in spite of the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Homo sapiens evolved with language, ruled by laws and structure, or grammar, close to logical and mathematical thinking, as demonstrated by Rudolf Carnap, Noam Chomsky, and other modern linguists. Our minds are wired for logical thinking as well as for the appreciation of art. As we mature we are able to think, enjoying simple books and pictures only with some prompting from parents and teachers, eventually moving up to adult literature, the art of words.
All literature is made up of strings of words, symbols like notes in music, evoking thoughts and feelings with the sound of words actually heard or imagined, with the images, smells and tastes referred to by the words, with a play of words.
Art as play
Art is the product of childlike play with adult discipline. A performer plays notes with a violin, piano, or guitar, expressing joy, sweet longing, and excitement that we can share. A painter plays with lines, shapes, and colors, attracting our attention to subject, story, or theme. A writer plays with words and sentences, paragraphs, backgrounds, characters, and plots, entertaining us with humor, pathos, suspense. A sculptor plays with clay, stone, or metal until the arrangement of materials is perfect enough for the artist and the client. The artist creates objects of beauty for self satisfaction and to please an audience. If the artist is thrilled, enthused, and excited with a piece of work, the audience is likely to receive it well. Afterward, the artist focuses on technique.
Deliberately the artist arranges the elements of the piece, trying different patterns, looking at the outcome and considering which pattern achieves best the effect the artist is after. Sometimes the artist feverishly lays down elements in a composition under the influence of enthusiasm, and when finished looks upon the creation with satisfaction, or more often with disgust at its imperfections sets the piece aside, and sometimes picks it up again later to reshape, always appealing to our senses and to our deepest emotions.
Senses as channels of information
The end product of artistic creation affects one or more of the senses, which are channels of information from the outside to the inner person, from sender to receiver, stirring the emotions and the intellect.
The senses are channels for art’s expression and appreciation, but the absence of sensory input is needed on occasion for artistic inspiration. We receive inspiration when sometimes in solitude we close our eyes, seek quietness, and stay still as in prayer and meditation. Sensory deprivation in a water tank or other device allows us to focus on the source of inspiration. Our consciousness changes from its ordinary, busy-world state, and we move to another sphere of thought and feeling. Some people create art under the influence of alcohol, caffeine, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and other psycho-active substances, with distorted and twisted products of the imagination. Not only some well-known painters and pop musicians (to their grief) were addicts, but some masters of literature like Sir Aldus Huxley and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) were users of such substances; in spite of their failings, they created great dramas.
Drama or comedy on film, stage, television, stories, novels, poetry, with plot or story line, characters, action, adventure, romance, and background that comes to us from senses of vision or hearing, with human conflict and resolution, love, hate, grief, exaltation arouses us more than any other art form, bringing us to sweet tears or raucous laughter. This art begins with the plot, a skeleton fleshed out with characters in conflict, intriguing background, exciting action and conversation.
Drama comes, not from the senses directly, but from the mind (feeling and intellect) through symbols associated in our minds with specific objects and experiences, known as referents; but drama too must capture beauty and truth, stirring our spirit, because as an expression of life, the fifth force in the universe, it gives us the joy of life’s blooming in youthful romance and birth and the sadness of life’s withdrawal in old age and death.
A painting also usually begins with a basic design sketched out by the artist, then filled in gradually with detail and color. A musical composition starts out with a basic theme or melody, a structure of notes, repeated with variations and embellishments. An essay addresses a thesis with a roster of arguments, con and pro in increasing order of importance. A food dish emerges at the hands of a chef from one or two basic ingredients such as beef, chicken or fish, with some spices, herbs, or sauces. When creating a piece of art, you will do well to lay down your design as conceived or changed as quickly as possible, filling in the details, expanding your concept, working up to a fever pitch, following the natural flow of your subject, in high excitement accessing all your mental resources; follow up by perfecting your piece as much as time allows with your utmost skill.
Skill, mastery of communication tools, rules the art world, stimulating thoughts, feelings, and enthusiasm, with art being on the same high level of power and importance for humanity as religion or science.
A glimpse of heaven
High art is a glimpse of heaven, a place where time stands still, joy reigns supreme, a place of peace in the stillness. Art imbues our spirit with the hope of eternal life and it’s much more than the exercise of skill, though we admire skill in a piece of artwork; art generates what is beautiful, appealing, and extraordinarily significant.
We see that significance in the monumental creations of architecture and sculpture such as the Egyptian pyramids, the Parthenon, the Taj Mahal, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, the Statute of Liberty, the Presidents at Mount Rushmore, the Cathedral of Notre Dame or the St. Sophia of Constantinople. You can also find great beauty and significance in something small and precious: a miniature painting, a Fabergé egg, a diamond necklace, or a medallion.
A medallion of beef dish can be an artistic creation of a high order. The culinary arts combine all five Aristotelian senses: taste of course, but also vision (colors, shapes), smell, touch (texture), and hearing (crunch, sizzle, crackle). When food manufacturers and great chefs go to work on an original recipe they attempt to use as many senses as possible in the product, such as Hershey’s symphony chocolate bar, Fritos chips, and pastry. Wine makers of quality go to great lengths to achieve impressions on the palate, nose, hearing, and vision. Food preparation and presentation may be the ultimate art next to eros, which can also combine the five classical senses, as well as the sixth sense of kinesthesia.
Music, painting, dance, drama, cuisine, eros, whatever the medium, the same principle applies to all the arts: An artwork excites certain pleasurable and satisfying feelings, sentiments, emotions, stirring us deeply. The senses are involved because that’s how we perceive things. No matter what its medium, art captures the ineffable quality of beauty, such as we see in natural objects, stars, flowers, landscapes, but people create artistic beauty. People too are part of nature.
Why do certain arrangements or patterns of elements in an art object capture truth and beauty? Why do these patterns stimulate our mind and move us, while other arrangements don’t? I shall answer these questions by looking at each pure art form, not mixtures, and by finding common principles that apply to all. What artistic expressions are interesting, exciting, moving, absorbing, and mysterious? Those expressions fascinate us which involve the unexpected, the surprising, and the creator’s emotions. In humor, for example, the writer must see what’s funny in a situation so that in presenting the story the audience may participate. Also, those who write or act out tragedies must share in the pathos of the situation. In acting, this technique is known as “the method,” advocated by Lee Strasberg.
Principles of all art forms
Looking at each art form in isolation, we find these common principles that apply to effective productions: introduction, unity (wholeness, completeness), variety (contrast and emphasis), originality, balance (symmetry, asymmetry, or broken symmetry), proportionality, rhythm in repetition, periodicity, eccentricity (focus or emphasis), melody and harmony, symbolism (metaphor), simplicity, tension and release, elegance, grace, coherence, cohesion, and concision (no clutter), conclusion and climax.
The use of these principles by the artist even with the greatest skill will not automatically result in fine and effective art. It will take much effort and work to achieve the desired effect. One or more of these principles may be lacking in a work, but it can still be great art, if the work was truly inspired. The most important principle is that the life force has expressed itself in the work with a spirit of love, a principle commonly known as inspiration or enthusiasm, meaning that, like breathing in, a spirit or god has entered the artist’s mind in the process of creation.
Following principles in creating artworks does not resolve the difficulty of expressing ourselves and communicating well; but it helps.
The artist must find a way to introduce the theme of the piece, to capture attention, to hook the audience. In music or speech, an overture or preamble warms up the listeners. “When in the course of human events…” “I’ve come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” You allow the listeners to relax, to become receptive to the message on the way, not to put up resistance and skepticism. If you lose your audience in the beginning, you may not get to them further on; you have failed to communicate.
The ending of a piece needs to be smashing, leaving a lasting impression. In a fireworks display, that is the finale. People remember the surprise ending, the happy one, or the tragic one, as in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette, with nearly everybody in the cast dying, just like in Hamlet.
This is the principle of the golden rectangle; the proportion or ratio of the long side to the short side is 1.618, making this rectangle more pleasing than others. In general, an artwork must possess parts which are in proper proportion to each other. In a painting, an enormous head doesn’t look good on a small body, as it doesn’t look good in nature. Proportionality is similar to balance in the work.
The mathematics of art goes beyond proportionality. In music for example, rhythm is established with numbers, three-quarter time for waltz and four-quarter time for foxtrot. Pythagoras believed that mathematics ruled music. Mathematics and music are universal languages for all cultures and peoples around the world, perhaps also in outer space. Scientists have tried communicating with alien intelligences by broadcasting the Pythagorean Theorem and the Fibonacci series. In the film “Encounters of the Third Kind,” Steven Spielberg depicted aliens communicating with humans using musical melodies. Some thinkers believe God is a mathematician, because the laws of Nature conform to mathematical concepts. God or Nature is also a musician, and an all around consummate artist; any creative worker can benefit by studying the wonders of Nature.
Periodicity and centricity
We can learn to apply artistic principles by studying, soaking in, beautiful objects in nature. Van Gogh was enthralled by sunflowers, painting them in his inimitable way many times. The sunflower repeats the pattern of its petals (periodicity) around the yellow center as a focus (centricity). The flower has evolved to attract insects to its center for pollination, but nature’s art in the flower is independent of reproductive function. In paintings the artist focuses on the main figure, for example, that of Jesus or Socrates surrounded by disciples. A halo of light customarily surrounds the head of Jesus or that of a saint.
Variety (Contrast and Emphasis)
Van Gogh painted Starry Night, the dark blue sky over country and river with countless stars shining in an awesome contrast of elements, simply drafted but expressing the contrast stunningly. In his painting of the Café Terrace at Night, he contrasts bright red lights with the dark blue sky. Obviously, van Gogh felt the deep emotion he imparts to us. The artist introduces a variety of elements, like Georges Braque does in his paintings, to avoid monotony from too much repetition. In the same way a good orator varies the tone and intensity of the voice, to avoid putting listeners to sleep, stressing certain key words with emphasis, and other times lowering the voice to a barely audible level, causing the audience to lean forward attentively, ears stretched to hear better. Writers present an idea, then contrast it with another using “but” or “however.” Good writers vary the length of words, sentences, and paragraphs to avoid ennui.
Tension and release
Conflict between elements creates tension. In a story, the protagonist faces an arch enemy who nearly vanquishes our hero. In music, rising notes reach a crescendo, and then come down the scale, releasing the tension. A joke builds up tension, only to release it with a surprise ending, inducing the reflex of laughter.
Style is the expression of the artist’s character which we see in the artwork. If we like the character of the artist–passionate or mild, forceful or shy, kind or aggressive, thoughtful or impulsive, romantic or realistic (even surrealistic like Salvador Dalí)—we enjoy finding these traits in a piece of art. Character rarely changes in life, so we usually encounter the same style in all the pieces the artist has produced. Hemingway’s style of writing is distinctly his; we recognize it immediately upon reading one of his paragraphs. Van Gogh’s style is his own, and cannot be imitated successfully. In the art of acting, Ronald Reagan played himself, communicating a simple, straight, honest, patriotic, courageous man; John Wayne similarly played himself in all his films.
If you want to be creative with style, be yourself; you cannot do better than that. You create things in your own image. If you’re appealing, your works will be appealing too. If you’re not appealing, try to change and become more pleasant and interesting. Good Luck! It’s virtually impossible to change your character. You’re better off finding an audience that likes what you do, in the same way you find a spouse that puts up with you, even enjoying your quirky ways.
Art is a medium of communication; as such it needs to be clear in its message to its audience. I know some paintings and writings employ fuzziness and vagueness to promote certain effects, but those are special cases. In general, people prefer clear, sharp, and well-defined pictures with no ambiguities and vagueness in photography and all artistic expressions. When you speak to your audience, they like to know what you’re talking about; they don’t like to guess about your meaning.
What about a situation where your subject matter is inherently complex and difficult? First, make sure you are addressing the right audience. You don’t want to tell an adult story to children or a sophisticated city story to simple country folk. A scientific account, replete with advanced math, has to be reserved for people with the necessary background and schooling. Second, any subject too complex to be presented clearly can be broken down into topics which are clear enough for a specific audience. If any of these topics are still unclear, break them down into sub-topics. Art too simple or repetitive is boring; people enjoy complex pictures, provided they can comprehend them in a step-by-step presentation.
We like tradition and fashion in artistic work, but we scoff at what is old-fashioned and dated. Rococo was popular in the eighteenth century, but it was supplanted by the Neoclassical style. Fine artists created great works in both styles, but these works are now for collectors. Most people look to the novelty of modern or contemporary fashions for their entertainment. As in the sciences and technologies, it is so in the arts that discoveries never stop coming if creative minds don’t stop looking for innovation and the public continues to be receptive to new ideas.
Sometimes fashions go in cycles without much innovation. For women, designers produce long skirts for a while then go back to shorter lengths, following stock market prices. These days we admire hot pants and hotter skirts to the point of indecency. But in art, fashions are not the whole story. True art goes beyond fashion and beyond utility, we shall see as we explore the principles of creative work—what we appreciate is not just a matter of individual or group taste.
Complexity in an art piece can be interesting, if the audience can perceive it. But not so, if complexity is superfluous in the message or the message is beyond comprehension. A simple object can be beautiful, like an Inuit sculpture in bone or a painting by Rothko, simple and passionate. Henry David Thoreau sought “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity” in his life and writings, and modern minimalist painters seek the essence of art by keeping only the absolutely essential elements in their work. In classical Greece, people dressed in a woolen or linen tunic (peplos or chiton) and around their bodies artfully draped a simple cloak (himation), pinned and girded. We see these garments with beautiful folds and colors in romantic paintings depicting life in Ancient Greece.
The simplicity principle requires that we do not add a single element to our composition except what we need to express and communicate well.
Grace and elegance
Grace or gracefulness is the quality of being graceful, pleasing, agile, concise (no clutter), the opposite of awkward, wasting no movement or energy, getting to the point of the message without rigmarole. Grace is the gift of kindness, favor, and joy we give to our audience when we create art, the same as we receive from divinity, the glimmer of perfection in what we design. As such, grace can be cultivated or at least selected from many productions, as in the case of the professional photographer who takes a multitude of subject photographs, finally selecting and showing one or two.
Adolescents proverbially lack grace, having grown quickly, not having learned as yet how to use their bigger bodies well in action. Every task we undertake for the first time comes out awkwardly, the product of our effort lacking grace until we master our subject matter. We tell our children or students, practice, practice, practice, to overcome obstacles in perfecting their style, because grace is an essential component of a good style.
Besides grace, we also admire elegance, simple effectiveness, usually achieved through balance and symmetry in assembling the parts of the artwork.
Symmetry is appealing; our bodies are symmetric, facial parts on either side of the nose, which is itself symmetric; but body symmetry is broken in places, it’s not complete, the heart somewhat to the left, for example. Asymmetry to a degree makes the design more interesting. Even the universe evolved from a broken symmetry in the primordial singularity.
Cohesion and coherence
Cohesion is the quality of connecting the parts, one element flowing into another smoothly. Abrupt transitions are usually avoided in art, unless on occasion contrast is sought for excitement and interest. The eye, the ear, the touch prefer an easy movement from element to element of the art object. People enjoy curves more than sharp edges, unless they fancy cubism by Picasso or Braque. Fashions change, but we still enjoy dancing together, hands or even bodies in contact. Bridging the parts together helps promote another desirable principle, that of coherence.
Coherence, however, is more than connected parts. We have a coherent piece when the parts fit together well and form an organic whole. One, two or three themes in the work prevail and give it a distinct character and purpose. This is the essence of composition, in classical or modern art. Jesus surrounded by his disciples in da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” is a complete design, each part of the painting contributing to the effect of closeness, love, and sacred mission. Nothing is put in the work except what is needed to complete the picture. Great art has integrity and honesty; the artist does not fake effects.
Emphasis and rhythm
A poet picks words with some syllables stressed, others unstressed, creating a rhythm, such as the iambic meter in John Keats Ode to Autumn: “To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells.” A painter allows light to fall on the main characters or objects, leaving other objects in shade. Similarly, a composer places emphasis on some notes, while other notes are mild. Our hearts beat in rhythms like drums, as do marches for parades or war. The Scots charge in battle to the rhythms of bagpipes stirring their brave impulses.
A meter repeating itself endlessly is boring; so composers introduce variations. Shakespeare: “Now is the winter of our discontent,” (inversion) or “To be or not to be, that is the question.” (weak ending) This technique is similar to broken symmetry.
Why does emphasis and rhythm stir our emotions? Because the world we live in is full of rhythms, such as the tapping of rain on the roof, the splashing of sea waves on the shore, and the calls of owls, crickets, goats. Rhythm is one expression of life as we know it on earth.
Symbolism and metaphor
A symbol is something which stands for something else, such as a word for an object or a written note for a sound; so is a metaphor or simile, comparing things which are different but have a common quality. Metaphors can be very striking and pleasing, but if they are too common, they become trite expressions. Artists constantly seek new forms of symbolism to avoid boredom and excite the imagination. Robert Burns: “My love is like a red, red rose.” (simile)
In literature, stories are replete with symbolism and metaphor, such as Jesus as the Lamb of God. In the Gospel, John 1:29, upon seeing Jesus, John the Baptist says: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
Symbols can be so powerfully endowed with emotion and feeling, they seem to go beyond things to which they relate (referents), to something greater and more profound. People sacrifice themselves for their country’s flag. “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” stirred the French rebels to tear down the monarchy and has become the national motto of France. The swastika was a potent symbol of fanatic devotion for the German Nazis and the Star of David a symbol of hatred. Sometimes symbols take a life and substance of their own: Holy Cross, Heaven, Holy Trinity, justice, freedom (symbolized in the Statute of Liberty), democracy, willpower, libido, ego, love, or compassion. On the other hand, as the simple postman asked in the film “Il Postino,” are the things we see and hear in our world metaphors for something beyond?
Echoing and nuance
Echoes are pleasing and interesting to our inner ear. In an opera the lead singer belts out a tune and the chorus echoes that. Hemingway echoes words and phrases throughout a passage and so does James Baldwin with African-American rhythms. What child has not enjoyed the echoes in a canyon or cavern? An echo is a repetition, but not an exact one; the vibration returns changed, imbued by the quality of the background.
In paintings we enjoy the reflections of sky, moon, sun, trees, flowers and buildings in the water, not exact reproductions but shimmering, ghostlike images. Again we observe something like a broken symmetry.
Variations in the echoes of artwork are nuances, subtle distinctions in what is said, sung, or sketched, pleasing to the audience, making the theme interesting through changes but staying with the theme.
Harmony and melody
When parts of an artwork harmonize they work together effectively to produce the desired result in the minds of the audience. Two (duo), three (trio), or more singers, like a barbershop or string quartet, blend their voices, basso, tenor, etc., to produce a harmonious whole in the song. Harmony, like symmetry, involves balance among the parts; no part, no individual member of the group, dominates the whole of the piece even if it’s in focus. If a painting is in black and white, neither the black or the white takes over the canvas or paper; no color, beautiful as it may be, chases the other colors out of a piece of art. Rounded surfaces balance those with angles. Large parts balance small ones. A harmonious composition makes use of the available elements, giving each one its proper role in the whole, in the same way as a business organization balances the capabilities and contributions of each member, the salesman, the manager, the accountant, the engineer, and the researcher.
We associate melody with music even more than harmony; but it’s a concept we can apply to all the arts. An old song said “a pretty girl is like melody,” and Dean Martin crooned “melody d’amour.” Melody is harder to explain and understand than harmony, but melody is the most important principle of all, because it’s that arrangement of elements, that particular order of parts, which organizes the composition into a meaningful, a beautiful, stirring pattern. I understand that some modern and contemporary musical or other artworks appear to possess no melody. Encountering such artworks I sometimes wonder where’s the melody, as people wander where’s the beef in a sandwich. Have artists exhausted all melodious combinations of elements so there are no more to discover? If not, why do they deny the use of melody, if they do deny it? I know that some modern works have subtle melodies that I don’t perceive because I’m not accustomed to their structure. I’m willing to be patient, to try again and again to see the merit of these pieces.
Some artists refuse to use melody because they are rebellious against tradition. That’s okay, but I suffer in their rebellion. The number of melodious patterns is inexhaustible, because given a sufficient number of elements at our disposal, like the notes of music do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, the number of combinations and arrangements are practically infinite. In “The Sound of Music,” by Rodgers and Hammerstein II, the character of Maria taught the children thus: “to build a song once you have these notes in your head you can sing a million different tunes by mixin’ them up.” Art is like science and engineering, a branching process like a perennial tree that keeps growing and growing, any new discovery offering numerous new opportunities for further discoveries.
It is hard, of course, to come up with new melodies, patterns pleasing and exciting, without getting tangled up in old growth. It’s far easier to copy or modify the arrangements of past artists. One needs inspiration and hard, sweaty work. You keep sweating at your creative task, hoping for inspiration.
Whatever the artistic expression (music, poetry, oratory, sculpture, dance, or rug weaving), consider the basic elements of a melody: phrase, shape, motion, motif, counterpoint, and theme.
A phrase is a series of notes (words in poetry), repeated throughout an artistic piece to form its melody, with extra notes (words) and variations as embellishments to enhance the main melody, making it more complex and interesting.
Shape can be seen on a written piece of music with rising or falling pitch, the same as in oratory the voice gets higher or lower.
Motion is how quickly (or slowly) a melody rises or falls in pitch.
Motif is a short piece of a melody which is repeated, often somewhat changed—for example, the motif may become slower, faster or given in reverse order.
Counterpoint occurs in a piece when it contains two or more melodies at the same time.
Theme is a larger section of the melody with several phrases, appearing several times in the piece; we recognize that as the melody of the piece, for example, the theme song of a film like “Star Wars” or “Dances with Wolves.” In a piece of writing, the theme is called a thesis, the main statement of the poem, story, or essay.
Beyond musical melody
Melody in music is defined as a pleasing linear arrangement of notes. Generalizing this definition to the other arts, we can say that melody is a pleasing arrangement of elements in one dimension (music or writing), two dimensions (paintings and photos), three dimensions (sculpture and architecture), or four dimensions (mobiles, films, theater, dance). The key word in the definition is “pleasing.” What makes a melody, that special arrangement of elements, a pleasing experience, or more than pleasing, exciting, inspiring, thought provoking, stimulating, refreshing, transforming, or transcendent?
We call gifted those people who with their art can give us a profoundly pleasing experience, or joy. If these people are charming orators, leaders, ministers, we call them charismatic, a word from the Greek charisma, meaning gift of grace, a divinely conferred power or talent. Melody is mysterious. If my explanation of melody doesn’t give you a clue, let me proceed with the analysis; I may succeed in confusing you even more.
Order and entropy
In music a melody is an orderly succession of notes which we hear as a single entity; that is, a melody is a structure. In the film “Amadeus,” the character of Antonio Salieri says about Mozart’s music: “displace one note and there would be diminishment; displace one phrase and the structure would fall.” It is the same in other arts, except that instead of notes, we have brush strokes, words, tastes, aromas, movements, or other structural elements. A culinary dish holds different nutritional elements on a plate like a framed picture, with enticing colors, aromas, flavors, organized attractively in a distinct structure. Most of us find structure, form, and order more pleasing than a chaotic system, a mess, a garbage pile. A messy system possesses a higher degree of entropy, a physical quantity in thermodynamics, which is also a mental quantity in information theory. That’s not surprising since our minds are physical in their neural loci and the effects of them can be physical in the world outside our brains.
The famed Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis is a sequence of carved columns, surrounded by slightly rounded marble stairs, supporting a roof lined with decorations in relief, a pleasing structure, replete with order. Any artwork embodies a design, an orderly arrangement of elements, which counters chaos and entropy.
In statistical thermodynamics we express entropy as a measure of disorder in terms of the probabilities of micro-states in the system: The sum of the products of the probability of each micro-state times the logarithm of the probability. We multiply this quantity with Boltzmann’s constant with units of Joules (J) per degree of temperature in Kelvin (K), a measure of the ways in which a system may be arranged, or the amount of information needed to specify the exact physical state of the system. In information theory we apply the same probabilities formula with a negative sign to get the quantity of information in a message from a transmitter to a receiver, but the units are in bits (binary digits). The higher the amount of uncertainty in a message the more we learn. We don’t learn anything from something we already know.
How does entropy relate to art? Art creates information or negative entropy. It does so better when it surprises with the unexpected.
Life also creates negative entropy or information in opposition to the second law of thermodynamics which states that all isolated systems inevitably go to a more chaotic state or increasing entropy. Erwin Schrödinger, a Nobel laureate in physics, in his little book “What is Life?” states that the creation of negative entropy or neg-entropy is the chief characteristic of living systems as opposed to inert matter. Clearly art is an expression of the life force, a force vibrating in the universe, everywhere present like God.
The transforming power of art
Art doesn’t just stimulate the brain pleasurably, but also, as an expression of the life force, art is a transforming agent, provided we pay close attention to it, absorbing its message. Actual or imagined, all experiences transform us; any process of reasoning also so affects us. But art makes us more alive and fully aware of this world and the world beyond, giving us a sense of meaning in life. Just owning art doesn’t do anything for us, unless we absorb its impact down deep in our souls. Music, for example, in the background of a restaurant or store when we eat or shop has little effect on us. We get little out of art in the background when we’re not focusing on it.
We are transformed by Mozart’s music, according to researchers in neurology. His music fine tunes our brains, establishing new connections among neurons. All experiences transform our brains and minds, but great art transforms us towards beauty, truth, and perfection, doing this more effectively. We need to immerse ourselves in the artwork and turn its impressions into a profound experience; then we’re affected. Walking by the great paintings in a museum does little to improve our minds. Buddhists teach: “Pay attention; pay attention; pay attention.” Sit down on a bench for an hour or two in front of an artwork; in the stillness, absorb deeply the impressions from the artwork, alert and fully aware, feeling the emotions the artist felt during the creation of the painting or sculpture. When a master chef treats you to a plate of culinary art, take in the colors, shapes, aromas, tastes of the dish, eat slowly, savoring every bite. Paying full attention to the masterpiece with every sense cell in your body, you get some of the spiritual benefits of an artistic experience.
Jesus taught his message with the art of story telling: the prodigal son, the man who was legion, the servants with talents; so did Voltaire, a religious skeptic, with stories of Micromégas, Zadig, and Candide.
Can art have a bad effect on our minds and behavior? Yes, when art is bad: crass, loud, common, vulgar, or chaotic. Even cows produce more milk, studies show, and plants grow greener with fine music instead of acid rock. We humans thrive too transformed towards perfection by natural or artificial beauty, with an appreciation of the good life, surviving better than those without a keen interest in art who find life boring, unexciting and dull. We evolved to be happy on earth, home to our kind of life for billions of years; we only need to find our way to happiness. Good art is a spiritual experience, transmitting to us some of the joy and peace of heaven, a place imagined, remembered, hoped for, the source of you and me and all life in the universe.