Monday, April 20, 2015


I love Saul Steinberg's drawing of "Frozen Music Found Near Radio City Music Hall, Winter 1939"

For thousands of years,  philosophers have struggled for an aesthetic theory of music.  Platonic theorists argue that musical works are abstract objects, while Nominalist thinkers  claim music is a collection of  concrete particulars.   Scholars  fiercely debate the "ontology of music"--  are drawings "physical objects"  while music is an abstraction  allowing for "multiple instantations"?    How do "harmony" and "composition" in music relate to harmony and composition in the visual arts? 

Steinberg sidesteps these kinds of semantic debates by showing us the day when music froze in mid-air:


Bill Watterson, in his excellent new book,  Exploring Calvin and Hobbes, said:
I love the unpretentiousness of cartoons.  If you sat down and wrote a two hundred page book called My Big Thoughts on Life, no one would read it. But if you stick those same thoughts in a comic strip and wrap them in a little joke that takes five seconds to read, now you're talking to millions.

Steinberg looked at layer upon layer of dense philosophical analysis, as impenetrable as coal under pressure, and picked out this little diamond-- clear, light and funny.


Anonymous said...

How do "harmony" and "composition" in music relate to harmony and composition in the visual arts?

It's all relative.

chris bennett said...

The best example of 'frozen music' I know of is the sculptures for the Parthenon pediment now in the British Museum. One of my all time favourite works of art.

The Irish artist Diamuid Kelly is a good example of a 'harmonic' painter.

And I think John Singer Sargent would be a good example of a melodic painter. (I thought of Sargent because his core subject matter is the same as Kelly's, and is therefore a telling comparison.)

Richard said...

Music is far more representational than Steinberg gives it credit for here.

Unknown said...

These are both very lovely painting. Thanks for posting them for us to see.

If you want to get your own art gallery for free visit Galerias de Arte.

kev ferrara said...

What intrigues me about this cartoon is that by couching it as documentation of a rare event from a bygone era, Steinberg is able to use a joke that really belongs in that era, rather than 1983. It gives me a sense that Steinberg was wistful for those long gone days and their beautiful, rarefied ideas, and really wasn't living in 1983's intellectual-cultural present (and who could blame him.)

Are drawings "physical objects" while music is an abstraction allowing for "multiple instantations"?

There are a few boggled predicates behind this question, which all relate to a misunderstanding of language. All codified languages are tribal codes. And all codes are necessarily anaesthetic, their meanings available only through the application of a key which decodes the language into some something readily digestible into mentalese. The code is not a complete language without the key. And nothing written in a code is a complete and understandable statement without the key. So nothing written in code without the key actually contains content!

So it is fallacious to presume that the notation of a symphony refers to the performance of that symphony without the presence of a human being who knows that key code to actually translate-interpret-play the score (either as it is written in notes or as it is written upon the physiology of the brain) as a performed sound (either through an instrument or via the mind's orchestra) which is then heard eventually in the mind's ear and digested as information in our physiology.

So while there may be a metaphysical math-like predicate generating reality, a Peircean analysis of language demonstrates that human ideas like songs or sentences can have no such metaphysicality. For they have no reality at all without the full code transmission protocol: decode key, code sign, code recognition of that sign, code translation using a decode key, decoded performance, reception of that performance, and then the translation of that performance into some kind of physiology-based mentalese which provides understanding.

(Whether such a Peircean analysis of language can subsume even something like a mathematical interpretation of reality will require more thought.)

Anyway, a fascinating thing about text languages is that they have two decoder keys. One which translates the writing signs into sounds, and the next which decodes those sounds into meanings. Not to belabor the obvious, but this is a very paranoid way to communicate, and it is one of many reasons why language has so many pitfalls.

Real Art, on the other hand, is an open form of communication which anyone of any tribe can experience as mentalese.

TLDR: I like cat videos.

Sean Farrell said...

David, another well written and explosively interesting post. Noticing the conspicuous directional symbol, Steinberg was probably aware of some of what Kev is talking about. Kev explained himself so beautifully and clearly, that I stumble with caution.

Traveling to a place where one doesn't know the language will testify to the truth that there is no content without knowing the language. Language is like DNA, which is also a code, but not the life which animates the code. No one actually knows what life is and none have been able to create it, though they are adept at doing things with it and of course killing life for little more than what one thinks is a possible territorial threat.

So the code does exist in some physical form in DNA and it clearly has potential, but is like dead flowers without the unknown that flows through it. In the same way, the musical score is like some dead or frozen thing, not discernible until decoded, but also requiring that mysterious unknown quality or life, which humorously, seems unlikely to come from the hapless onlookers.

Exactly how domesticating is the effect of our codes is very hard to know since even the question requires many layers of understanding we take for granted. The human organism, doesn't know. It's nerves are sensitive, reactive and defensive and each acts in unknowingness, not knowing how reactive is too reactive, how defensive is too defensive, when enough is enough. A more common translation may be, that humans are sensitive, fallible and proud. Then there is this business of hormones.

Many of these territorial and survival codes are learned at the simplest levels by imitation, but as an illustration of raw hormonal nature, I once shared a cold water flat with two other guys and one of them brought home a kitten and being a romantic, never got the cat altered. As its time approached it was getting agitated and upon returning from a weekend the cat was gone. The window was left open and the cat had jumped over an alley to the next building we surmised which was about 5 or 6 feet away and two stories down. Quite a leap with no sight of him anywhere, and hardly the action of hormonal triggers humans experience. Of course it is possible the landlord may have come and opened the door, but from the way the cat had been pacing around, it probably jumped.

So how a code is animated demands a certain amount of that unknown quantity of life, but also equally mysterious, the quality of life, or life filtered by codes. Why does the wine taste better as it ages?

Sean Farrell said...

“Steinberg looked at layer upon layer of dense philosophical analysis, as impenetrable as coal under pressure, and picked out this little diamond-- clear, light and funny.”

Beautifully said.

chris bennett said...

How do "harmony" and "composition" in music relate to harmony and composition in the visual arts?"

Connectivity between the elements.
To example one of the simplest and basic in music: Hearing F sharp move to B and then to E sounds like a resolution; an arrival. In other words, on hearing the notes we feel a meaningful implication in their order.
The same goes for the hand made image. The connectivity between one shape and another is the means by which it speaks.

This is the difference between a song and the sound of a blackbird, the difference between a painting by Antonio Garcia Lopez and a panoramic photograph of Madrid. As we gaze across the field of connections he places before our eyes, so does his soul empathise with ours.

David Apatoff said...

etc, etc-- Is it? I'll bet you don't sing in a barbershop quartet.

chris bennett-- I love the Parthenon sculptures too-- they are my first stop every time I visit the British Museum (followed by that marvelous Egyptian wing). Of course, despite the fact that they were sculpted during the lifetime of Plato, who conceived of idealized abstract "forms" and Aristotle, who conceived of perfect beauty, they do not contain an abstraction of music in the sense of Steinberg's drawing (although their procession contains musicians). They only share some of the aesthetic qualities of music, right?

Richard-- Well, music certainly can be used to tell narratives (from Peter & the Wolf to Scheherazade) and it certainly can be used to convey recognizable moods (Ode to Joy) but wouldn't you say that music remains the most abstract of the art forms? There was a big link between music and abstract expressionism, between sounds on the one hand and raw colors and shapes on the other. Even the color red is representational in one sense, although we would call a pure red canvas "abstract."

kev ferrara said...

The link between music and art was a widely understood connection during the Romantic period, probably originating in ideas that came out of the Renaissance, which were derived from considerations dating to antiquity. The obsession with Synesthesia in art circles during the 19th Century was all about the connection of all the senses, which included not only visual music, but also the idea of themes as characters (lietmotifs), the sound quality of textures, "impressionistic" music compositions, and how architecture speaks symbolically. Howard Pyle taught his students to marinate in these kinds of synesthetic ways of art making as early as 1894 and he said he began teaching because the art of composing was falling away. In other words, thinking of visuals musically (and synesthetically about art in general) was already old hat. Pyle taught at least four students that ended up being high modernists (Gordon McCouch, George Harding, Olive Rush, and Walter Bowman Russell.)

And even with the sparse textual record of painter's thoughts there are still hundreds upon hundreds of references in art discussions to scales and composition and tuning and rhythm and counterpoint, etc, throughout the written record prior to 1900. Athanasus Kircher's Musurgia analogizes sound and light in 1650. The first "ocular harpsichord" which associated color with sound was created in 1730, etc.

Which is all to say that Kupka, Kandinsky and the like were the crash of a wave that began much farther out in a much deeper ocean.

Richard said...

> "but wouldn't you say that music remains the most abstract of the art forms?"

Too often music is compared to math -- it's language is fractional, yes, but the sentiment emerges from a different part of us entirely. Music's closest sister is Poetry, evoking human (spiritual) sentiments not from the signs, but from beyond them. Real music, like real poetry, doesn't convey moods, it evokes them.

Non-representational art is quite another story. It also evokes a sensation, but it is of a different kind. While sharing little on the face of it with mathematics, non-representational art excites a very similar part of the brain. The part of the brain one excites by solving programming problems. Something in the subconcious "left-brain". It engages something exciting within us, but not the sort of thing that should bring a person to tears. (If there is a preponderance of non-representational artists in our society, it is merely because their science and math educations were too poor to bring them in a more suitable direction.)

When non-representational art does bring a person to tears (besides in the cases of mere charlatanism) it does so, as I believe kev put it, by a conveyance of mood. Non-representational art can harp ;) on the denoted senses of the colors, shapes, textures, and so on. This is that mere conveyance. It may bring someone to tears, but only if that person were ready to cry to begin with.

So when I say that Music is more 'representational', I'm bastardizing the word to try to express that music, by evoking deep human sentiments, evokes something so deeply human it might as well be tangible. The sort of deeply human emotions that only representational art can evoke.

Steinberg's comparing music to a fractalesque growth on the sidewalk suggests to me an inability to appreciate music, a solitary left-brain hearing the fractions in the music but missing what is being said from beyond them. A more accurate cartoon would have merely cast the music made physical as Mucha's Apotheosis of the Slavs -- that's music.

chris bennett said...

“…they do not contain an abstraction of music in the sense of Steinberg's drawing (although their procession contains musicians).”

In my view the fact that the hunks of carved rock look like people and the Steinberg drawing looks like a sculpture of nothing in particular is irrelevant. I find myself ‘reading’ all visual art as a sort of ‘frozen music’ of shapes; the Parthenon pediment sculpture came to mind just because those heads and knees could be seen as crochets and quavers bobbing up and down among the stave-like strands of drapery weaving them together… a fragment of musical score… made out of solidified lava. 

“They only share some of the aesthetic qualities of music, right?”

How the language of music actually transposes to the language of the visual (plastic) arts is, I find, something of a black box affair. Hence I’m reduced to saying things like Diarmuid Kelly paints ‘harmonically’ while Sargent paints melodically (generally speaking). I experience the resonances between both the musical and the plastic languages enough to be pretty sure they are in some way working on parallel lines, but get very confused when I try to make direct comparisons. Kev Ferrara has done a huge amount of work teasing out the specific details of how that happens and is someone I would refer you to.

Richard’s point about music (and I’ll add the dramatic arts) bringing one to tears in a way that the visual arts rarely does is something I have often wondered about, and I think it's directly related to David’s last question.
It seems that the reason why is not only confined to the difference between these arts, but the difference between representational and non-representational plastic art. And while this is surely directly proportional to the degree to which an art form is temporal, it throws up the most baffling of paradoxes: The most ‘abstract’ of the arts induce the most powerful, immediate emotion while the most concrete of the arts induces a more distanced, contemplative emotion. And yet representational pictures are more generally affecting in this regard than non-representational (‘abstract’) ones.

kev ferrara said...

Richard, firstly, all art forms are poetic forms, which utilize the plastic qualities of their media, which are appreciated via sensations.

Secondly, there are far more parallels between visual art and music than written poetry and music. The shortest proof of that is the textural emphasis of text; that poetry, as it requires text, has an intense lexical grit of constant consonants; plosives, fricatives, Sibilants, etc, which give a scratchy intricate clickety consistency to the written line. Contrast this to the power of large hollow shapes in art and soaring sonorous trombone sounds in music which give a much greater emphasis to the openness of vowels. Partly this is to do with the performative aspects of visual art and music, because large open notes broadcast... versus the mostly private quality of poetry.

TLDR: Art and music must sing out, necessarily, while poetry whispers and chatters in the ear. (Unless that poetry is turned into song or speech.)

Incidentally, I've seen many people cry in front of paintings, both representational and non-representational. I've never seen anybody, however, cry in front of a giant sculpture of a clothespin or balloon dog.

Sean Farrell said...

Does the reference to 1939 have any specific meaning? Is there a kind of Day the Music Died type reference in it?

The frozen people, the frozen music, the stifled day. The layers of knowledge in the indecipherable music and how it relates to the world around it and what freezes it, what stunts it?

At what point does knowledge, or code, freeze art, taking the life out of it? When does one trust their knowledge and when does it begin breathing life? What is going on with the perpetual student who never trusts their own knowledge? What is that combination of knowledge and life which finds maturity in an artist's work?

How much knowledge is civilizing and how much is domesticating and how much is suffocating? How much is liberating or freedom and how much is governing and how much is tyranny, isolation, or desolation? I have no answers to these things yet they seem to be an unavoidable part of life and making art.

Richard said...


I'm not talking about the media from without, I'm talking about the sensory experience savored at the locus of consciousness -- I'm trying to get at the experience of non-representational art from within.

It is, as I've stated before, a sensation that feels remarkably similar to appreciating exciting and novel mathematics or programming. The "Left-brain" plastic arts, so to speak. They feel, to me, like a somehow pleasant searing blade from below the jaw out through the top of the head, a throb behind the eyes, an involuntary stretching of the face into a deranged grin, followed by waves of mania.

I occasionally find this feeling in musically-obscure jazz, but by and large music evokes more human sensation -- earthly feelings like love, hope, dread, fear, sorrow, etc. which is the same family of feelings I experience from representational art and poetry.

kev ferrara said...


I don't see how the signals from without can be separated from the experience within. Regardless, you asserted that poetry was closer to music than visual art, which is what I was addressing.

Again, all aspects of the arts have, as their main component, plasticity that is by nature abstract. And by using that term "abstract", I do not readily mean non-representational. In fact, as has been discussed here before, it may well be that there is no such thing as non-representational plasticity. (If our brains are programmed by environment and we extrapolate and create from the same, only mad thoughts would be truly non-representational, it would seem.)

The slightly eerie artistic experiences you describe, which have been called many things in the simple state (aesthetic emotions) and in its overwhelming and complex state (Aestheic Arrest being my favorite) are available in all the arts and in any style... if the art is good enough and the audience sensitive enough that is. And by "good enough" I mean that the work provides the qualities (objective correlatives, one might say) that cause emotions and the structure of those objective correlatives that cause the Aesthetic Arrest. (Although, as has also been discussed here, some people respond rather strongly to "non-representational" works in a manner similar to how patients sometimes respond to the psychologist's associative tool known as a "Projection Test.")

My point is that just because you personally only feel deep or identifiable aesthetic emotions in just a few styles or a few forms should not be taken as proof that those styles and forms are fundamentally different than all others. They just happen to be ones that you personally respond to. And actually, on the non-fundamental level the textual-textural aspect of poetry and its lack of broadcasting sonority makes it the oddest form out. Which was my earlier point.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- Thanks for the referral to Diamuid Kelly. He paints with such a tight realism, he is not someone I would normally select to exemplify "harmonic." Can you share more about your choice?

Kev Ferrara wrote: There are a few boggled predicates behind this question [Are drawings "physical objects" while music is an abstraction allowing for "multiple instantations"?] which all relate to a misunderstanding of language.

Kev, there is a substantial body of dense academic material dealing with every possible permutation of that particular question. The question (and the vocabulary) aren't original with me. But if you want to work on your PhD in aesthetics, there are all kinds of tireless pedants eager to engage on that issue.

As for your larger point (about text languages requiring a decoder but art being an open form of communication which anyone of any tribe can experience as mentalese) I mostly agree but I still don't think the categories are quite as orderly as you suggest. There are plenty of paintings whose visual symbols require decoding (from medieval religious paintings to pre-Raphaelite paintings) and plenty of languages where tone of voice (or moans or shouts) doesn't require a decoder to "decode those sounds into meanings."

Sean Farrell-- I take your point. I've jumped over a few alleys in my day.

kev ferrara said...

Kev, there is a substantial body of dense academic material dealing with every possible permutation of that particular question.

As you might imagine, I've read a huge chunk of that junk. And no, "every possible permutation" has not been explored. Which is why I offered the insight I did; it actually solves the question quite succinctly. (How the nature of language prevents an unperformed composition from existing platonically was my "larger" point, not the insight about the secretive nature of text, which was just an aside of interest.)

Tom said...

All sensations, feelings and ideas come an go. Isn't the real reason for all the different forms of art to learn to come into harmony with, and to appreciate life?

Sean Farrell said...

Kev, This is an area you own and I have a question if it merits an answer.

Obviously nothing exists if it isn't in some form and a musical score doesn't pre-exist the writing of the score itself, nor the performance the performance itself. Yet music is rooted in stuff, like language and phrasing and may exist as some form making up small memories, like the squeaking of a swing, the song of a bird, the humming of a simple tune which is sometimes the basis of larger works.

There would be no music at all but for the development of the language which has its roots in all this simple stuff added layer upon layer to become a body of understandings. Part of what fascinated the Renaissance and Greek revivalists was a belief that Platonic ideals did exist in math and architecture, the architecture of music, art forms, etc. and it's not too hard understand how they might have felt that their creations had pre-existed, even if they hadn't, since following certain rules led to some astonishingly beautiful things.

How might Beethoven have responded to your sentence, “How the nature of language prevents an unperformed composition from existing platonically.” ?

kev ferrara said...

Hi Sean,

I'm no expert on Beethoven. I do know that he worked very hard to become the great artist he was. He had his share of early immature works. If he thought of his works as somehow borne out of the platonic either, and himself as merely a conduit... then he must have at least understood that it took a heck of a lot of practice for him to become the effective medium he eventually became for tuning into the music of the spheres.

When I was writing a lot of music, I would often get inspiration from nearby birds, many of whom were excellent melodicists in their strictly minimalist way, often just repeating an interval over and over that chimed with the day. Such sing-song doesn't make song, but it can remind you of the power in simple ideas. Yet song is complex and there are countless overlapping, interwoven and cyclical structures. Even the fastest written great songs are still built, and nothing gets built in life without work.

An interesting assumption behind your question seems to be that the birdsong is not creative work on the part of the bird. That, rather, it is something that happens in the course of nature. Which is to say, the birdsong was somehow preordained by its existence, which in turn was ultra-determined by its parentage, then lineage, then evolution, turtles all the way down to the primordial earth and galaxy which was in turn preordained by the original arrangement of all energy and matter as it exploded out of the nothingness that was the beginning of time.

And one can, if one is a determinist of the aforementioned strict type, believe the same can be said of humans and all their products. But such pre-ordainment of all our conceptual endeavors is not the same, I would think, as those same concepts already existing in finished form in some timeless, perfect realm awaiting the one great artist who can harvest that frequency.

One aside; I would dispute the idea that we have music because of the development of language. My understanding is that the same innate impetus promotes all our communicative arts.

Sean Farrell said...

Kev, I don't have any answers, but yes I'm suggesting that anything we can recognize has in some way already been identified, even visual things, people, gestures, flowers, etc. We identified them at some earlier point in life as a human figure, etc. and then notice each by their unique qualities.

Certain things can be misidentified and we are in an age of disassociation where some say, I am a mouse because I feel like a mouse. I am a bull because I feel like a bull. Rather than make the observation that I have no clue what I am because I'm drowning in feelings which overwhelm me or which I find desirous. It's a kind of culture of hormonal abuse where high school students are taking drugs to study and remember things more clearly.

I did mention DNA earlier, so I am assuming something prewritten into the individual, but I hadn't been thinking of the birdsong as a creative act or as evolution as a creative act, yet as you describe them they are and appear carried on in each creature. A cat doesn't need to be taught to chase a mouse. At least somehow, it figures out it isn't the mouse's prey. Big things tend to chase little things as large shapes push small ones. Things have properties and in relation to other things they tend to act differently. The cat generally knows it isn't going to push its owner around.

Beethoven lost his hearing and continued to write and was able to hear what he wasn't hearing through some sort of memory, finely honed into a kind of substance audible at least to him. That's what I had in mind. Is memory and identification some kind of stuff? Though many descriptions are inadequate as accurate symbols, is the creaking of a swing that different as remembered by one to the next? I don't know, but assume that some descriptions are more accurate or better approximate something than others.

It's been drilled into us that symbols are a separate reality that aren't actually real and that's understandable as true, but the mathematician has a pictorially symbolic way of seeing, to which unrelated mathematical symbols are assigned and both are imaginative, but the pictorial part is rooted in reality. The imagination is using something, something stored or yet to combine in some new way and is this a type of stored stuff, even if stored triggers of some kind, possibly more refined than the inner workings of a cell?

I agree that there are a lot of unexplored and unanswered questions. In one way you explained why there is no platonic or pre-existing art. On the other hand, the mysteries of identification and exactly how memory-imaginations take form without being some kind of form, seems almost a contradiction. Thanks.

Sean Farrell said...

PS: I meant in what your last sentence refers to, to mean, the development of the musical language with all its layers of understandings, hard work, etc. over time as the creation of more complicated forms of music. Sorry about that. Yes, I agree people are driven to communicate by some innate impetus.

kev ferrara said...


It is obviously difficult to really nail down this stuff given the current state of brain science. Though some humility is required, I think philosophical reasoning still provides the cleverest sorties into the questions of human thought. To wit (hopefully); I think the organ of the brain only writes in its own particular organic circuitry, which is an ultra complex and messy sign system which is natural to it. This sign system, like all sign systems, cannot be meaning, it can only suggest meaning through lexical associations.

I think this was an ancient idea, that all understanding is by nature poetic, and it is clear that all our languages function on that basis. That is to say, every understanding is appreciated through inference. Relevant and comprehending elements are apprehended as a kind of chord, the meaning of which rings to us as a unit, but a unit that is necessarily hollow, the intervals being that which is not sounded. In putting together any conception, in achieving our fullest understanding of any particular thing, we are only in a sense circling it, grammatically scribing its outline in dashes, rather than touching it. So, in that sense, human meaning is always metaphysical. It never actually has embodiment... and it would be a misunderstanding of grammar to declare that the elements which implicate a notion to the mind are in fact that notion. The fact that we get little spurts of very real reward chemicals (which sometimes lead to physicalized emotions) for making deep connections doesn't change the basic fact that our circuits of understanding can have no centralized physical unity.

So all mental achievements in conception are necessarily structural, relational... organizational. And among the multitude of conceptual structures wrought into the architecture of our physical brain, that is where music is and remains composed.

(Where meaning is not metaphysical, it would seem, is where there is direct physical contact with the outside world. Such physicality, it would stand to reason, must therefore be the cornerstone of sane thought. Which is undoubtedly why evolution has allowed for physical interactions to remain so coercive.)

Sean Farrell said...

I really like what your wrote and don't dismiss anything, but I'm not getting a sense of where identification with reality fits in.

Some principles work time and again in their applications in reality and in art too and being metaphysical, of thought, doesn't pose a problem to their value.

Our self has the proportions and the principles of real time and space reflected in imprinted memories and it's a vivid sense of both which often makes dreams so startling.

That thoughts and memories are sign systems or even sign imprints or shadows of the proportions and structures of the real world doesn't pose any obstacle to their being in some way physically imprinted as memory. Neither is their a conflict with understanding as poetic, as a kind of chord or unit and all mental achievements being necessarily structural, relational...organizational. The hollow nature of thought can reveal plenty by observation which is unfathomable about a thing by touching it. But yes, the identification with something is real, whether in touch, smell or some other real identification, as with a parent, child, etc. And such identifications also make up our memories.

When I was a kid, my folks put our cat in a box, then into the trunk of their car and drove a few towns away to a grandparent's house. They drove the car into the garage and put the closed box on the floor, then backed out of the garage, closed the door and drove home about 10 miles away. Three days later the cat walks up to their front door. Was it a scent? Did it sense the space the car drove? What imprint brought it back home and why did it bother when food was available in its new surroundings? Why is it that identifications are so binding and why does their breakdown make all less substantial? If identifications are binding, aren't they also somehow real?

Sean Farrell said...

Kev: By identifications I'm referring not necessarily to thoughts, since animals have identifications too. But they can be thoughts, memories of things learned, impressions, etc. as well as things learned pre-verbally. But they are an identification with something or someone rather than analysis or mental work as achievement.

kev ferrara said...

Hi Sean,

Presuming I understand the gist of your thoughts, I would say that resonance between mental model and actual events is the key feature linking the mind to reality. To the extent that we can know that any principle is valid is the degree to which it manifests physically just as it is imagined. (With blunt physicality, where truth and fact are indistinguishable, no resonance is required and no thought is required.)

The cat may have been putting together a scent trail from the car, a mental sensory-movement map from the experience in the box in the car... it had probably roamed some in the nearby neighborhoods, maybe it appreciated a particular smell that your neighborhood had (maybe there was a particular factory or type of blossom, some food often made at a particular restaurant somewhat close by, etc. Kitty probably used any number of methods to solve the issue. Having lived with a number of animals in my life, I have noted on countless occasions that they have tremendous perceptual abilities and often keen reasoning skills.

chris bennett said...

David Apatoff said: “Thanks for the referral to Diarmuid Kelly. He paints with such a tight realism, he is not someone I would normally select to exemplify "harmonic." Can you share more about your choice?”

I’ll certainly try David. Like I said, the transposition of the language of music into that of the visual arts is something of a black box affair, so what I’m going to say will be an approximation at best, and will rely on your imagination to make any extra leaps. And I ought to point out that by saying Kelly is a ‘harmonic’ painter I am really saying that his work utilises this aspect more than a melodic or rhythmic one - all aspects are present in his work of course, it is a question of degree and emphasis.

The harmonic aspect in Kelly’s pictures is in fact a result of his ‘tightness’, but not of his realism. His realism is a product of his abstracting gifts, similar to Vermeer, and not the dead, dogged rendering skills of someone like our friend Nelson Shanks). And this ‘tightness’ is not ‘literalness’ either. It is the sonority with which he organises shapes and values (colour/tones). The modulations (value changes) across his forms are tightly in key, forming chords assembled one against the other, each form/shape scratching the back of its neighbour so-to-speak, so that they all resonate together throughout the whole picture. And it is in his colour key changes within this process that he harvests much of his pictorial fruit. Think of how such a thing happens in music – the temporary key shift in Maria’s song ‘Tonight’ in West Side Story for example – how it induces a sense of temporary transfiguration. I find much of the satisfaction in looking at Kelly’s pictures is derived from these harmonic shifts within the ‘ground’ key of his canvases; shapes and ‘value chords’ adjusting across a surface to resonate with a harmonious conclusion.

I hope this goes some way to explain what I mean. Off the cuff I’d add Chardin, Gwen John, Uglow, Uccello, John Sell Cotman, Morandi, as well as Vermeer to my list of ‘harmonic’ painters.

chris bennett said...

PS: The only 'harmonic' illustrator I can think of would be Bernie Fuchs.

Sean Farrell said...

Thanks Kev, I do think there's plenty ahead regarding how the mind works. The cat, yes it must have been something like scent, the sea air traveling off the ocean northward over Long Island, might have done it. The sun may have played into it. Even the arrangement of the stars for all anyone knows. It's hard to figure what we don't register which an animal might.

Anonymous said...


What I meant was that exactly how harmony and composition are or are not related in art and music is such a complicated question, highly dependent upon ones grasp of music theory, aesthetic theory, perception, and philosophy in general. It is something I've given a great deal of study and thought to, but I've learned through the years that there is no point in sharing my answers to my questions if someone else doesn't share my questions to begin with; it's all relative.