Saturday, April 21, 2007


Poetry that is influenced by painting is called ekphrasis. One could expand that to poems that respond to all the visual arts, including photography and sculpture. Visual artwork that responds to written text is called illustration, illumination, and cinema. Dance and music are often considered to be inextricably integrated, although Merce Cunningham and John Cage, and their circle of artists, proved that the only things that ultimately link music and dance are that they may happen at the same time, with no other connection. Sculpture can be memorial, monolithic, lightbearing, evanescent. Architecture is the artwork we live and move inside, and decorate to taste.

Frank Zappa once opined: Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. And yet we still do it. Frank didn't say we shouldn't, he just told us what it was like. In modern dance classes I particpated in at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, led by Ellen Moore, there were sunny afternoons when we went outside the studio, and responded to the architecture of the buildings all around us, and the open spaces of the tree-dappled lawns. So, in fact, I have danced about architecture; and I often write about music.

What do we call art that responds to the art of other artists?

Recursive self-referential art? Insular, navel-gazing art? Critics of art that interprets and responds to other art would call it this and many other disparaging labels, all the while forgetting that recursion (self-referentiality) is a natural function. The branching forks of a river delta repeat the veins of a leaf, the branches of a tree, the way capillary blood vessels merge into veins in your own forearm. Fractal geometry is the first geometry that accurately represents natural forms. A poetry or other art rooted in the natural world, the world we experience, might also be branching in form and meaning (intent).

Some of the critical negativity against recursive art is derived from the critical stereotype of the Hero-Artist, standing alone and misunderstood by all (except of course the Hero-Critic, who alone amongst his peers "gets it," and whose mission is to educate the ignorant masses). More of the critical negativity comes from the post-Romantic notion of the artist as solitary genius, creating work so original and powerful that only later centuries will embrace it. Both of these are heroic, romantic, ideological stereotypes; yet they dominate a great of discourse about the arts. It's true that these heroic stereotypes have led to a lot of bad art that was intended to be an hommage but instead becomes mere panegyric or hollow praise-singing.

But the idea of the pure, heroic, genius artist is a false stereotype. It never really existed. All genuinely original artists have responded to their times, in the context of their times, and made their art sometimes in reaction against the prevailing winds of artistic fashion, and sometimes in response to those same winds. All art is created in context. Hardly ever does a New Art burst forth into the world through sheer inspiration, fully formed, as though sprung like Athena from the forehead of Zeus.

Artists constantly refer to work by other artists; their predecessors, their teachers, their influences. Artists engage in dialogues: with each other, with themselves, with their inner worlds, and with the Mysteries. They talk to each other, across centuries, or wider gulfs. It's natural to want to engage in dialogue with those you feel are your peers, your teachers, your interlocutors, no matter how near or how far they are from you, in time and space. Kindred spirits gather around the same fires, and are confocal in their interests.

There is something sacred about the act. It is, in the hands of some artists, worshipful, almost religious. It is not impossible to view artwork as responsorial, in the sacred sense: responsory chants to the voices of the other singers. Two choirs singing across a gallery from one another.

On my shelves are numerous responsories: contemporary artistic festschrifts to Albrecht Dürer; Leonardo da Vinci; Piet Mondrian (Louis Andriessen's marvelous symphonic work De Stijl); f-Stop Fitzgeralds' photo books of musicians and sculptors; Mark Magidson's book of photos from the making of Ron Fricke's Baraka, which Magidson produced; and many other kinds of examples. Some of the most interesting books, to me, are responses to Paleolithic shamanic art: Clayton Eshleman's poetic study of cave paintings; Gary Snyder's research into Native American poetry; Jerome Rothernberg's anthologies of modern re-tellings of the old chants, poem-stories, and songs; and many more.

Artist Roni Horn responds in many works to Emily Dickinson. In some works, lines from the poems are painted onto the physical object, and become integral to its presence; they function as words, but words that float freely above the space they're placed in, not divorced from physical presence.

In one of the purest homages to this planet we live on, Andy Goldsworthy makes sculptures out of natural materials. Some are designed to endure. Some are so ephemeral, that once a photo is taken, the art melts away, and all that remains is the photo, as document. (Which is the real artwork? The ice-sculpture melting in the morning sun, or the photo that remains?) Goldsworthy's art is ecological, and eco-poetic, not in any theoretical academic sense, but purely, viscerally, kinesthetically. He plays with time, and time's effects on the materials of the composition. Ultimately, Goldsworthy's art might be about anentropy: resistance to death at the same celebrating ephemerality. It is a profound response.

Responsories can be cross-cultural, as well. I have lived in Asian countries for significant periods of my life. And those experiences have left their mark on my art. The way I play improvised music has been influenced by years of listening to and studying Indonesian gamelan. I have written before about cross-cultural musical pollination, which has been called New Traditions music.

Don't take this too literally: I am not necessarily going to write a journal-poem about living in Indonesia. I am not necessarily saying ekphrastic poems that literally depict what's in the painting are anything more than reportage. The best, most genuine artistic responses are usually not literal, but evocative, even spiritual. There are numerous artists who I respond to, every time I encounter their work, but whose work I do not literally imitate. Imitation is what you do when you are apprenticing yourself to an artist: you learn by copying, till you find your own way. But at some point, you are responding to the spirit within the artwork, not to its visible form. As Basho said: Do not imitate the masters. Seek what they sought.

Our responsories are that seeking: we seek what they sought. And if we're diligent, dedicated, and presistent, we may find it. No guarantees, mind you. But when you sing out, you are never certain that an echo, or an answering voice, will return your song. Nevertheless we sing out. Because we must. Because it's necessary. Because we can do no better thing, in response to our lives, to our world, to what we love.

Responsaries 2

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