Literature and the Sister Arts

When studying literature we are often reminded of other forms of art and their relationships with literature. After all, literature is a form of art and can be appreciated more if we see it with its “relations.” To do this, we can take a number of approaches.  One would be to see literary movements in the context of other arts of the same period; thus we could see the connections between Modern literature and music, or Imagist literature and painting. Another would be to take the principles of literary composition or analysis and compare them with the principles of composition in music or the visual arts.

In this latter case we would see that the writer chooses his materials in much the same way as a painter chooses his. Only the writer chooses from among words, and genres, while the painter chooses from among oils, water colors, or pencils, the musician from among notes and instruments, and the sculptor from among such mateials as marble, metal, or clay, etc. After such selection, each artist then arranges these materials into the form or shape which will best suit the purpose for which the work of art is being created. The process, thus, is the same. And we could make similar comparisons with photographers, and even, perhaps, film makers and choreographers, although these involve choices from among other forms of art.

If we were to take a closer look at some of the specific comparisons, we could take a quick look at an historical period or two, the second way mentioned above, to see how art of the same period, or within the same movement, shares similarities.

The 18th century was the Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment, because it was characterized by an emphasis on rational thought. At the time, people believed that they could discover all the truths about the world and human existence through scientific observation and the process of reasoning. Because of their faith in reason, people possessed a great deal of optimism about the present and future. They also generally possessed a deep interest in science, a desire to preserve cultural standards and traditions, and a belief in moderation and self-restraint. These attitudes and beliefs are reflected in the literary style of the period, as well as in other forms of artistic expression. In literature artists used elegant and ornate language. Much of the literature of the period, as well as other arts, came to be called Baroque. In architecture, designers developed what is also called the Baroque, showing elegant, elaborate, decorative ornamentation. Further, because of the deliberate attempt to recreate the values, forms, and styles of the ancient classical world, we see a literary style of balance and harmony, just as we encounter in formal English gardens. The architectural style that grew out of the efforts of revitalizing the values of the classical world is called Neoclassicism. In contrast with the decorative splendour of Baroque facades Neoclassicism is characterized by symmetry, purity of design and lack of flush ornament. Order was to be imposed on chaos, which we also see in the designs of these gardens. This was a great age for the translation of classical literature into the English language, so we also see the translation of English buildings and grounds into an image from ancient Greece or Rome. The fascination with the subject matter of antiquity can also be seen in paintings from the period. The music of this period shows the same fondness with balance, harmony, symmetry, and intricacy.

To take another example, following WWI there was a growing sense of uncertainty, disjointedness, and disillusionment among certain members of society. Many people came to distrust the ideas and values of the past, and sought to find new ideas that seemed more applicable to 20th century life. Similarly, artists began turning away from the styles, forms, and contents of 19th century literature and began experimenting with new themes and techniques. A new movement, known as Modernism, was born. In fact, it was poetry which ushered in the Modernist movement.

This poetic movement, known as Imagism (which lasted from 1909 to 1917), attracted followers in both the United States and England. The Imagists rebelled against the sentimentality of 19th century poetry. They demanded instead hard, clear expression, concrete images, and the language of everyday speech. Their models came from Greek and Roman classics, Chinese and Japanese poetry, and the free verse of the French poets of their own day. Inspired by the evolving art of photography the Imagists concentrated on the direct presentation of images or word pictures. Like an Imagist painting, an Imagist poem expressed the essence of an object, person, or incident, without explanations or generalizations. Through the spare, clean presentation of an image, the Imagists hoped to evoke an emotional response—they hoped to freeze a single moment in time and to capture the emotions of that moment. Avoiding traditional patterns, they also attempted to create new, musical rhythms in their work.

In music, likewise, the devastation of WWI brought about an end to the sense of optimism that had characterized the years immediately preceding it—the jazz age. Modern music, in the hands of such musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, and Charlie Parker created effects unlike any experienced before. Discord, dissonance, atonality: these become the marks of Modern music, again reflecting the discord and fragmentation of life. Syncopation, arrhythmic patterns reflected new elements integrated into Western culture. No longer trusting the ideas and values of the world out of which the war had developed, people sought to find new ideas that were more applicable to 20th century life. The Modernists experimented with a wide variety of new approaches and techniques. Yet, the Modernists shared a common purpose: they sought to capture the essence of modern life in the form and content of their work. To reflect the fragmentation of the modern world, the Modernists constructed their works out of fragments, omitting the expositions, transitions, resolutions, and explanations used in traditional music and literature.

The Modernists attempted to capture the essence of modern life in both the form and content of their work. The uncertainty, bewilderment, and apparent meaninglessness of modern life were common themes. Furthermore, these themes were generally implied rather than directly stated, to reflect this sense of uncertainty, and to allow audiences their own engagement. For these reasons fiction writers began abandoning traditional plot structures, omitting devices that in the past had clarified the work for the reader. Instead, poems, stories and novels were structured to reflect fragmentation and the uncertainty of human experience. A typical modern story or novel seems to begin arbitrarily and to end without a resolution, leaving the reader with possibilities, not solutions. Modern art is famous for the “open ended” possibilities it provides for viewers, each bringing an individual response, no individual response being “correct.” In structure, form, content, Modern art, such as Cubism, for example, is a good parallel to Modern literature. Although fragmentation is a major characteristic of Modern art, the number of artistic circles and workshops that featured writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, photographers, film makers and architects alike was growing. One of the most salient manifestation of the integration of all arts was the Bauhaus in Germany.

Finally, Modern architecture is perhaps the best visual representative of the essence of Modernism, and one whose principles can be compared to literature. The general disillusionment generated by the unprecedented destruction of World War I urged architects to turn away from the classical roots and ornate façades and focus on the function of the building instead. The architectural styles that preceded the Great War used ornament to conceal the structure and the functions of buildings by making apartment blocks or office buildings look like ornate palaces. The discrepancy between the modern functional requirements and the façades evoking the splendor of bygone eras became rather controversial in the shadow of the war. Modernist architects render form a derivative of function so that ornament no longer hides but rather emphasizes the structure and the function of the building. Similarly to Imagist poets, modernist architects reduce the form, that is the visual language of architecture, to its absolute essence in order to make it expressive of the content. The purity of functionalist façades and the absence of decoration recall the precision of the language of Imagist poems with all the words functioning as indispensible means to capture an image.

Thus we can see literature, along with her “Sister Arts,” providing a commentary on the period in which it was produced. And if we look closely, we can see how each reflects the other: the balance and ornamentation achieved in 18th century prose can be seen in Baroque buildings of the same era, both of which communicate the attitudes of the times. The turbulence and fragmentation of Modern art, music, painting, and architecture also reflect the disjointed nature of the times. Studying literature, then, can be a way not only into cultural history, but into the cultural present, and into other arts, as well.