2014-04-04

Three Ideas For Making Art

Three possibilities for making art can be found by considering Realism, Impressionism, and Modernism.

Realism reflects an artist's desire to replicate what s/he sees exactly. Impressionism reflects the artist's desire to produce a stylized version of a vision. Modernism reflects the artist's desire to produce an image that is completely detached from what we see and experience in the real world.

As you can see, I am using these terms quite loosely compared to their formal definitions. In my version of "Realism," I would also include Surrealism because, like Realism, it is an effort to replicate a "realistic" image exactly, even if the image is not something that would ever be observed in physical reality. In my version of "Impressionism," I would include literally any stylized image of something that exists or could potentially exist in the real world. Finally, in my version of "Modernism," I include all images that are essentially detached from any obligation to physical reality, images that are fully abstract.

The definitions I've just given are obviously unsatisfying, so let's use them for this one blog post, and drop them thereafter. For the purposes of this post, I mean only to highlight three significant approaches to art: replication, stylization, and abstraction.

We can apply the same theoretical concepts to music.

One kind of musical artist is s/he who endeavors to replicate. Here I include musical virtuosos - people who are so technically proficient that they can more or less play anything. These artists tend to be excellent repertory players because they can train themselves to reproduce a wide variety of sounds. In rock and jazz, they learn the great solos and the famous songs exactly, note-for-note.

Another kind of artist begins with what s/he hears in the body of existing music and stylizes it to his/her own liking. Like the "Impressionist" category above, this is likely the largest category of musicians. They don't necessarily learn songs note-for-note, but they aren't trying to tear down any barriers. The most innovative of these musicians innovate by applying new sounds in traditional ways. Like The Tea Party, they might fuse traditional Eastern music with Western pop-rock. Like Yanni, they might fuse modern electric pop and synthesizer sounds with traditional Western orchestral ideas. Like Jack White, they might bring together vintage 70s rock and roll and modern punk rock. Whatever the case may be, the pattern nearly always involves drawing inspiration from the music they artist loves, relaxing the constraints imposed by exact replication, and exalting in the new ideas that get produced by the artist's inherent individuality.

The last kind of musical artist is the one that corresponds to "Modernism." This sort of artist draws much less inspiration from the music s/he hears, and has little to know interest in producing exact replications of existing material. Instead, they endeavor to create musical sounds that do not already exist. Their goal is to produce wholly new music; the less their music can be compared to existing material, the better (to them).

Any musical artist can, at any moment in time, engage in Realism, Impressionism, or Modernism. Most will do a fair amount of each thing, while ultimately concentrating most of his/her "serious" efforts in one particular realm.

It's also important to keep in mind that these are only conceptual ideas. It may well be that a virtuoso sees his work less as exact replication and more as something else. He may choose to describe what he does some other way. It may also be that musical "Modernism" is an impossible ideal-type. Perhaps, on some level, every act of musical artistry is an example of "Impressionism," putting one's own spin on a type of material that already exists, and that "there's nothing new - it's all been done."

But I am less interested in whether these three ideas are "real" or "truly represent three kinds of artists" than I am in the fact that they are three ideas or methods or paradigms that can be employed to the creation of art and music. You may identify more strongly with one of these "methods" than the other two. If so, when you run into writer's block, you could potentially leverage one of the other two concepts to make some progress that you otherwise wouldn't have.