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  • Andrew Field

Parallel Lines in Three-Dimensional Space


detail from the ceiling of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel


I have written a lot, in this blog and in some published articles in The Comics Journal, about ekphrasis, which means basically a poem about a painting, or, if we widen the lens a bit, trying to describe one work of art via another work of art. So we might create a sculpture based on a song that moves us, or direct a film based on our love for gardening, or even think about the way that life itself is a kind of commentary about art, and vice versa. When we think about the kind of textures of life in this way, then the world itself seems like a kind of book, unified, on which we individually compose our separate commentaries.


Of course, just because life can be seen this way - and I think this interpretation of interpretation, we could say, is fairly legitimate, and acquires much substance from reading really powerful and ethical thinkers like Nietzsche or Harold Bloom or Soren Kierkegaard or William James - does not mean that every interpretation is just as good as any other interpretation, since it is possible, as Harold Bloom did, to posit both a cosmological emptiness or darkness in which we wander, while also positing, as Bloom did as well, a spark in the heart that keeps us alive. If we are going to use this framework, then the spark suggests that people who listen to it, their daimon, conscience, heart, what have you, especially in the wake of enormous odds, might then be able to muster forth interpretations that could help others, since when we do listen to our conscience in the midst of incredible suffering, and do this over long periods of time, then we can serve as role models to other people in similar types of darknesses, similar types of suffering and voicelessness.


To create art is to find a voice, and to find a voice happens out of a need to survive, and therefore, in the best and most important and lasting works of art, something elemental, like thirst. That is why the best works of art - like Bob Dylans work, has both an intimacy and an urgency -because it proceeds from someone mastering a restlessness that comes from suffering that is unspeakable and that itself derives from trauma and a human being's bewilderment about how to process it. Trauma often comes from one's parents, but also in relationships, and it happens when we are forced to interact with people that Allen Grossman describes rightly in his criticism point-blank as "rapists," meaning people who cannot see the other, who can only see their own vanity, and rather than try to grow or change, merely project and project onto others rather than take responsibility for their lives, and because of their evasions people suffer, children suffer, and cycle of violence is perpetuated rather than checked. This is the fundamental ignorance, a kind of blindness that is terrifying, though it is not the spiritual blindness we read about, involving basically not judging a book by its cover, but judging with your heart, but rather a kind of willed obfuscation, a form of rape through the inability to see, like a masking, a cloaking, a violence that does not and cannot open its eyes, and is therefore animalistic, not human, and something we should learn to recognize and fight against for the sake of our children and the generations that come after us.


When we think of art as stemming from the basic need for survival, we can then begin to understand why people create art, and then begin to de-idealize it, while also actually widening our reverence for people like Dylan who mastered not only singer-songwriting but, in a sense, life itself, for to be able to create with some power and consistency, not only in song, but in performance, day in and day out, in painting, acting, directing, welding, cartooning, writing an experimental prose poetry collection, a memoir, and recently a book of essays on music, not to mention a radio show and being a parent and just a human being, suggests that Dylan is a master, like someone like Ramana Maharshi in Hinduism, or Thich Nhat Hanh in Buddhism (it is not a coincidence that one of Dylan's most interesting paintings, for my money, is of a Buddhist monk), but his mastery is not only of religion but art, so that he himself, in his very individual self, is a renaissance. Walter Pater wrote about the Italian renaissance, Alain Locke wrote about the Harlem Renaissance, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about and helped inaugurate the American Renaissance, Shakespeare was the English Renaissance, and Dylan represent, like Shakespeare, a renaissance within his very self, which is why, when he sings on his latest album of containing multitudes, we should think of both Whitman and Shakespeare as his rightful company, along with other people who do not have peers in the arts, like Gabrielle Bell in the graphic novel, or Pablo Picasso in visual art, or Ingmar Bergman in film.


Dylan is probably the best person we can think about when it comes to many of these questions related to culture and art that we have been discussing, on this website through blogposts, on the radio show and in the articles, because Dylan not only works in genres but art forms. How do I mean? Picture a train moving down a track; maybe it's going slowly, maybe it's hurtling full-steam ahead. Then place on this track various images, like holograms, of the greatest exemplars of every imaginable American genre of music, aside from perhaps jazz: folk (though it begins as an English tradition, but infused wit the spirit of Woody Guthrie, who makes it American); rock n' roll (Elvis, the Delta Blues even more so); country (Johnny Cash, Hank Williams); gospel (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles); a form of art rock that has no precedent, as well as the music of The Basement tapes that also has no precedent, and a late phase that also has no precedent, all which combines a sophistication and rawness, like a new form of the greatest, most adventurous, weirdest, most satisfying religion of music imaginable. It is imaginative music, music that changed the way we thought about voice, performance, lyrics, arrangements, thought, feeling, and life itself. And Dylan is that train that somehow made each of these genres his own, which never happened in the history of music. I know very little about Mozart, though I suppose we can safely say he mastered very many configurations of instruments of classical music, like the symphony or chamber music, or different forms, like the requiem or the larghetto, and Dylan seems to have done the same in American popular music. This does not happen, ever.


But it gets even crazier. Because Dylan not only mastered every imaginable genre of American popular music - and not in a boring way, since mastery suggests actual adventure, actual imagination, the spirit itself and not its manufacture - but he also worked in different art forms. So not only is there one track with every genre of American popular music, with the exception perhaps of jazz, that he made his own and gave to us as a gift to listen, but there is also a track for painting, one for writing, and others for things like acting, directing, welding, and drawing. And this is also just kind of fabulous. We don't focus enough on the way many artists often explore other art forms, and we don't emphasize how important this can be for helping an artist understand other art forms in which he or she practices. Elizabeth Bishop painted and wrote fiction. Michelangelo Buonarroti wrote poetry. Harold Bloom wrote a science-fiction novel. John Ashbery made these wonderful collages.


When you practice in different art forms, you learn different kinds of thinking. The graphic novel, for example, is like this, since you have to tell a story and draw, and you have to do both in such a way as to do it organically and, in the best forms, have a distinctive voice and drawing style as well. It's almost impossible, and kind of ridiculous to think about. Thinking in painting is different from thinking in poetry, because they are different kinds of intelligences, to invoke Howard Gardner's work. And when you practice different art forms, when you explore different parallel lines in the three-dimensional world, you discover that they never really converge, even if they seem to, and that each form really is a distinct thing, and for that reason ekphrasis is so interesting. When we can really understand ekphrasis, a sort of - not twangling, but a description of something by describing something else - then we can also understand this notion of parallel lines, which is embodied, I think, in Dylan's work, as well as the work of William James, who mastered not only psychology, and in some inaugurated the study of it, but also philosophy, through pragmatism, and religion. It is rare to contribute to different art forms or disciplines in this way, but I think when we consider the work of James or Dylan, for a fuller picture of the magnitude of their achievement, we have to think about this notion of parallels.


When we then consider the hybridity of our current moment, it is safe to say that we would not be doing what we are doing without Dylan's example, because his work in genre and art form made possible what is happening now. We can only combine different genres, as The Magnetic Fields do, say, or Fiona Apple, the former combing things like Motown, country, synth rock, art rock, musicals, progressive rock, anything and everything imaginable through refracted through the genius of Stephin Merritt; and the latter combining soul with rock n'roll and a kind of carnivalesque or vaudevillian atmosphere, with aspects of R&B and theater and a kind of shamanistic intensity that has a relationship to religious chanting and incantation; and both of whom thrive not only on the power of their lyrics and the richness of their voices, which are sui generis, but on the arrangements of their songs - we could not have this happen without Dylan. He mastered the genres so that we could combine them; he separated them out and made them his own so that we could combine them in our own ways. I like Kierkegaard more than Hegel, but there's always that dialectic where things are apart and then there's some new synthesis, on and on.


And when we do take a step back to consider Dylan's achievement, and think about the differences between ekphrasis and forms of twangling or combining, and forms that involve a kind of parallel practice, then we can think more clearly about both hybridity and traditions. Traditions are parallel lines that sometimes run into each other - think of the notion of catharsis, which combines social justice and aesthetics - but which we should still think about as, in some sense, parallel traditions. The best works of art, like the best works of criticism, are syncretic through and through, combing and weaving traditions in new ways that are therefore old ways. But we should never mistake syncretism for homogeneity, and originality comes from the honoring of traditions and therefore the recognition of differences before similarities. And when we can look at traditions, when we are initiated into their practices, when we work to understand a tradition and then another tradition, and try and make judicious comparisons that honor the integrity of the graphic novel tradition, say, as distinct from the poetic tradition, or film for that matter, or painting, then we can begin to separate the parallel lines a bit, and carve space for understanding each of these lines in a different way. I never considered visual art a kind of commentary on the cartoon until I read Gabrielle Bell, Liana Finck, Chris Ware, and really learned and thought about drawings and cartoons. Then, when I began looking at Picasso, my thinking about paintings changed. And when I then looked at the paintings of Paolo Uccello, and the cave paintings at Lascaux, I started to think that our entire understanding of painting as something related to tromp l'oeil figuration was completely off the mark and kind of beside the point. Verisimilitude itself, questions of mimesis or representation, all of this changed when I began to work in different traditions, different parallel lines. I suppose that that is how history and biography are intertwined; a person experiments, listens to their heart, fights the bad guys, and then a style is developed, or styles, but still united by the acorn, the daimon, the voice, the character, and then a way of seeing is formed, and we can then think about larger questions related to culture, tradition, history, or art.


Detail from the cave paintings at Lascaux




Paolo Uccello, The Battle of San Romano







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