Music and Art
Creating visual art and making music have both been around at least as long as our discovery of fire-making. As far back as we humans go, both music and art have been participatory activities. It seems easiest to recognize this in the case of music, given its performance by groups of people and, even in solo concerts, the spontaneous or prompted audience participation. It's harder to see this in the case of visual art, but it is participatory too. Just as when we're listening to music, when we really look at a painting we let the work filter through us and happen to us, with our sensations or experiences adding to its meaning, impact, or story. Big difference between art and music participation, I think, is that music is readily available in our own contemporary society, with hardly any effort needed to hear it. In contrast, visual art, with the exception of street art and graffitti, seems to be put apart from us, located in special galleries, artists' studios, and the like. This may make it seem as if visual art lives somewhere "separate" from us.
Art and Participation
It doesn't have to be like that, and it isn't so in other cultures such as Bali or regions in Mexico, for example, where visual art is part of one's daily life, available to everyone as you walk in village centers and along dusty streets.I recall exploring Bali with a local resident, greeting each morning with a flower offering, as she did, and seeing newly decorated statues each day while walking with her to shop at the local outdoor market, seeing the daily adornments on temples and statues in the village square, watching people designing batiks, others with paints and brushes painting scenes or making carvings that pleased them, flower-arranging, and perhaps putting some art on display. All this creative activity was happening while live gamelan music was being performed in the square, with local interpretive-dancers occasionally joining in with ease and grace. Sure, there are notable "artists" whose life work is devoted to visual or musical art, and whose artistic product is acknowledged as special, but there are also countless others with artistic sensibilities who weave art-making into their ways of appreciating life.
Classical Roots and Modern Links
The links between music and visual art in Western culture are strong, even if not noticeably so on a daily basis. In Classical Greece, the visual and musical were linked as underlying world structures. Pythagoras, whom many of us link with geometry lessons, placed visual art and music on a level with mathematics and science. By the way, he also studied and created paintings and sculpture.
In modern times, the links between music and visual art were explicit for painters like Kandinsky, for example, who formulated an art theory likened to a musical score and used colours to evoke sounds (below, see his 1923 Composition 8). Kandinsky and the musician, Arnold Schoenberg (who also painted) were friends, and exchanged paintings. Kandinsky may have been unusually acute in relating music and visual art, given his likely synaesthesia, a neurological condition in which vision and sound perceptions are experienced jointly. Lady Gaga has publicized having a similar sound-colour synaesthesia in which she sees specific colours when hearing sounds.
Usually it has been abstract painters who have made explicit formal links between art and music. But the general influence of their works and theories has influenced many other painters, such as Georgia O'Keefe, who similarly thought that music could be visually translated. Piet Mondrian was probably one of the strongest advocates of this position. His famous "grids," like "Broadway Boogie Woogie (1943)" (below), use primary colours (red, yellow, blue) representing musical notes, and their relative size and spacing along horizontal and vertical lines were intended to create beats, rhythm, and dynamics. Mondrian loved Jazz music and in the 1940s often attended live performances by Thelonious Monk, who also compared his musical approach to Mondrian's paintings. Way ahead of his time, in the 1920s Mondrian proposed a concert space in which abstract, electrical colour projections (called "sound-colours") would combine with music to create an immersive experience.
It's rare for us to have synaesthesia or formal theories about what we like or want in either music or art. For many of us, the link between music and visual art works more subtly and is likely to be based upon elating our auditory and visual experiences in more personal ways.
When You Can't Put it into Words
Both visual art and music go beyond words into realms of direct sensation, experience, feeling and personal associations. Yet both are talked and written about, and the words used to describe them are often similar. Music composers and conductors apply terms also used in visual art: tonal variation, colours, shapes, harmonies, pattern, direction, flourishes, and texture. Visual art and music have numerous parallels because they share these elements as well as the profound effect of engaging our emotions and experience.... given that we're willing to look or listen.
The link between visual art and music is reciprocated by artists in both realms. Many painters have created works inspired by specific musical works and genres. Reciprocally, many musicians have been inspired by visual artworks. I was recently at a concert by the Vancouver Philharmonic playing a Rachmaninov work inspired by his being awestruck by a black-and-white copy of a symbolist painting called Isle of the Dead, by Arnold Böcklin (1884, below). I can't honestly say I "enjoyed" the music, but I was lured by it on a seasick journey into a fantasy world that was mystical and foreboding. That's probably what the painting inspired in the composer, given the painting depicts ominously tall, dark and dense trees surrounded by high cliffs enclosing a stretch of dark sea in which a tiny boat and lone figures glide mysteriously. Curiously, it was this monochromatic version that inspired the music, not the full-colour version the composer saw later and which had minimal impact on him. As painters know -- not just colour, but dramatic contrast carries an emotional impact.
Art, both musical and visual, runs the gamut of emotions and styles. Whistler, another painter inspired by music, worked on paintings he called harmonies, then turned to nocturnes, and then symphonies. Marc Chagall spent his early career working with musicians and performers for the Ballets Russes and subsequently designed productions for operas in NY and Paris. Chagall's love for music continues to shine in two large murals appearing like stained-glass windows (Triumph of Music and Source of Music) framing the entrance to New York's Metropolitan Opera.
A number of famous musicians of our time have also been visual artists. Both Joni Mitchell and John Lennon went to visual art school and continued to paint during their music careers. In fact, many of Joni Mitchell's album covers were from her own self-portraits and paintings. Other renowned musicians painted as well: like Miles Davis, Tony Benett, David Bowie, and Bob Dylan.
Being famous in one artistic realm helps to get your work touted in another art realm -- a double-edged gift and sword. While on travels in Europe recently, I was surprised to see Bob Dylan's paintings in a wonderful setting (Chateau La Coste) in Provence that featured paintings and outdoor sculptures. Dylan's paintings were OK, in my view, but nothing original or remarkable as his music and lyrics. Still, it's impressive how creativity in music and visual art tend to cross-fertilize one another.
Getting It Together
Given all the connections between music and visual art, why don't music and visual art get together in the same venue? Actually, they do. Visual artists often report playing recorded music while painting to promote or to change a feeling they want visually to express. This holds for album covers and music videos as well as for public music performances.Displaying artwork while publically performing music is the easiest public way to fuse visual art and music. Andy Warhol was particularly keen on The Velvet Underground, a pop band of his day, providing artwork for the album covers and having his art films play during their concerts. From to Erykah Badu to Iggy Pop, musicians have a long tradition of sharing the stage with artwork created by visual artists they respect. Recent computer-assisted generative music can visibly link sound and vision. Music visualisation is a feature found in electronic media player software that generates animated abstract imagery on a screen in real time, synchronized with the music played. I don't think this is art, exactly, but (for me) it recalls watching a lava lamp while listening to the Moody Blues. Still, it's remarkable to see and hear how one art informs another and, potentially, can enrich our lives.