GoodArt: Between Sound and Sense

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GoodArt: Between Sound and Sense

From Iian Neill

Published before 2005

Not long ago I finished Karl Shapiro's A Prosody Handbook [1]; a book that, as its title suggests, deals with the technical concerns of poetry; in particular, the classification and elucidation of such devices as meter, assonance, rhyme, etc., to more subtle considerations of rhythm, in an attempt to lay bare the technical processes at the heart of poetry that govern the laws of that art. Given my confessed incompetence in metrical matters, I politely (and to the relief of many, I'm sure) decline from descanting on the particulars of their analysis.

But one point struck me in particular in this text, notable as it is throughout for its consistent sanity and sensitivity. Shapiro, in attacking the prevalent misconception that poetry conforms rigorously in practise to predetermined rules of meter, that is to say, that a poem in iambic pentameter predictably shambles along in pigeon-footed gait, Shapiro demonstrated the surprising normality of exceptions to the rule - with the frequent liberties taken by poets to the theoretically rigid and inflexible forms. This, perhaps, should not startle us greatly: after all, despite laws of harmony, consonance, etc., one hardly expects composers to turn out symphonies like an organ-grinder minces melodies; rather, laws in the musical art serve as strongly-worded suggestions that the composer is unwise to totally ignore, but which at critical junctures he must bid adieu to, at least temporarily, if he is to set out on his path.

But returning to the point: Shapiro, in an apothegm of searing lucidity, makes clear the link between sound and sense that has for so long baffled feebler intellects like my own. Namely, the effects of sound qua sound in poetry - the much discussed but little understood musicality of poetry - are BY AND LARGE NEUTRAL TO THE EAR UNACCOMPANIED BY AN ACCOMPANYING IDEA. Forgive me for raising my voice, but I consider this a fundamental axiom (tautology, bah!) of aesthetic criticism. At one Alexandrian stroke it cuts through the Gordion knot of Modernist metaphysics: namely, that colour, form, line, etc., have an existence independent of ideistic content, of subject, of narrative: in short, that the medium itself can in some way act as the subject of the work.

Now Fred has made it clear to us in the past how ridiculous this notion is in his fine example in his speeches: that is, the equivalent of the Modernist in oratory would be a speaker who simply recites meaningless adjectives ... whereas when we get to Pollock words themselves have to be abandoned in favour of brutish grunts and uncomely flatulence. Indeed, Modernist formalist criticism - a la Clement Greenberg - breaks down to nothing but an endlessly repeated cry of "Red, reddish, redness!"

But, at the same time, we don't want to cede the formalist territory to its Modernist usurpers. After all, nineteenth century theorists were certainly not shy of discussing a painting in more or less technical vocabulary which of necessity revolved around formalist features - naturally, we note, not to the exclusion of psychology, poetic qualities, etc.

But what does this have to do with Shapiro's epiphany? Namely, Shapiro says that sonorous effects in poetry are by and large neutral to the ear unless accompanied by an appropriately suggestive idea. That is to say, it is not enough for a poem to resound with thunderous vowels to suggest the tramping of an army on the march ... rather, the idea that accompanies the sound must agree with it, must, to phrase it paradoxically, embody it imagistically. In other words, martial sound qualities must accompany martial imagery or themes if they are to produce an effect which is received as martial by the poetic ear. Stentorian syllables in themselves are powerless to recreate aesthetic experience.

This is to ride haggard the Modernist forces in the very centre of their camp: Musicality in poetry can exist independently of ideistic content - for any image to be conveyed through sound, the meaning of the poem must agree with the sense; of course, we do not insist on this point blindly, as sense can be made to run counter to sound for legitimate psychological effects (that is to say, where the tone of the voice betrays the content of the message), but by and large we cannot ignore the gravitation that binds both sound and sense together.

Sense is needed if sound is to achieve its fullest effect.

So it is in painting. In short, all formalist criticism of painting is null, negatory, and void if it is unaccompanied by psychological and thematic observations as well. That is to say, it is not enough to talk about - in other than a purely technical sense for the edification of painters themselves - a painting's colour harmonies, "significant form", compositional focal points, etc., in the abstract, as things in themselves that can be discussed profitably, but they must also agree with the sense of the painting.

In other words, art criticism is by nature a dialectical process: the Victorian moralists and the Modernist formalists were mistaken in thinking that the one could be rendered asunder, that one could somehow extract the ethical essence of a painting irrespective of its manner, its style, its Beauty; whereas the Modernists committed the equal heresy of assuming that a painting could be discussed solely in terms of its technical procedures, eventually leading themselves to formulate an art that takes its own medium as its content, and that does not relate to human feelings, experiences, or institutions, but only to itself, or to other equally self-reflexive "works of art".

Of the two infidels, the moralists committed a merely venial sin, insofar as their ranting at least acknowledged the human value of a work of art, the ethical integrity that truly great artists tend to exhibit, even as they rudely forced art into a didactic straitjacket. The moralists were guilty of immature psychology. The formalists, on the other hand, could be pardoned at first for responding so aggressively to the dictates of the social reformers, of the Press that acted as a megaphone for plebian ethical judgements; but the rot began to settle in with Oscar Wilde's The Artist as Critic, which, going beyond Whistler's Ten O'Clock Lecture which sanely pointed out that the artist's business is to make art, and to leave the fashioning of laws or the moral inculcation of the populace to the classroom and the pulpit, Wilde's essay spun the lines of a siren song that has lured many a Modernist critic, and naturally every poseur and dilettante who pretends to know anything about "modern art", to idolize the critic as not merely an interpreter to the public of a moral message or allegorical intention that was manifestly invented, but to actually assert his independence as a creative agent. In other words, as incisively etched in Miles's Dante contra Danto, the critic became king. We could even say he became the philosopher-king of the Modernist totalitarian state and, realizing the ressentiment of Plato, banished the poets, minstrels, and artists from his republic of last-men.

In short, in our battle against Modernism we must never cede them the fort of formalism: a painter has a right to discuss his works in technical terms, to employ specialist vocabulary when he has a need, to enjoy a work in terms of its diction, its syntax, its meter, its rhythm, its musicality, etc. Conversely, he is obliged to consider the relationship of the enumerated qualities with the ideistic content - in other words, it is meaningless to talk of these qualities in the abstract. It is worse than hopeless to pursue abstract Happiness - it is altogether pernicious to enjoyment of earthly life at all. Happiness can only be pursued in its concrete forms; similarly, aesthetic qualities cannot be intelligibly discoursed outside of the ideas or images attached to them.

Best regards,


[1] Shapiro, Karl. A Prosody Handbook. New York : Harper & Row, 1965.