Making a Painting into a Song

It happens all the time: a poem gets turned into a song; a linguist will write a poem or poetic description of a work of art; a painting may even be drawn based on the emotional response an artist had to a piece of music. Although instances of this transformation of one art medium into another has happened frequently throughout history, the debate is open (especially in philosophical circles) whether this transformation is either possible, or worth the effort.

While this entry is not going to debate these philosophical arguments, I did want to present one thinker’s view on the issue.  Leo Tolstoy (yes, the writer of War and Peace), despised the works which were being labeled ‘art’ during his life. He believed that art only entered the “art canon” when it was deemed to be worthy of the label ‘art’ by those grumpy art critics. Perhaps exaggeratedly, Tolstoy even claims that no matter what “insanities” are found in works that come to be critically proclaimed as art, a theory will eventually be developed, post-haste, that stands to justify the work’s place in the art world.

I’m sure we’ve all had an experience like this, even if it was in our youth;  you walk into a room, see something so simple, hideous, or totally outrageous that you are stunned to find out that it is a multi-million dollar work of art. Perhaps you’ve even seen a musical performance that you thought was undeserving of the label ‘music.’ In fact, this is the theory of art critics as taste-makers which can be used when explaining instances like this. 

Let’s look at mega-famous pop artist Andy Warhol’s work — for example, who would ever think that an installation made of soft drink boxes could ever been deemed ‘fine art.’ The same goes for most of Warhol’s other works; even if you love them, the recognition given to his works by the kings and queens of the art world played a major role in bringing his pop art to world audiences. 

I’m sure many of us today may scoff at some of the ‘art’ that society tries to sell us. This may go for visual art, music, poetry, literature, theatre…

However, Tolstoy does offer us a solution, if you scream that all of today’s art is “garbage!” This solution comes to us through didacticism, a concept which in this context refers to the communication of the artist’s or creator’s feelings to the viewer through an art medium. According to Tolstoy, something can only truly be deemed to be ‘art’  when the audience is infected by feelings the author has felt; the audience must gain some awareness or knowledge of the creator’s past life experiences. A great example of this quality would be to look at Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and ask yourself “how does this make me feel?”  The ‘feel’ part is important when thinking about Tolstoy’s didacticism.

A more extreme example of the above would be to look at a self-portrait, such as M. C. Echer’s, and allow the emotion of the piece to wash over us. When looking at a self-portrait, the creator has chosen to represent themselves, and therefore all the moments, joys, and woes leading up to the point the work was created, through an art medium, making for a potentially powerful burst of feelings and awareness. In fact, Tolstoy believed that the more efficient a work is in relaying the feelings and experiences of the creator, the greater the work of art is. For him, the greatest works of art are those which put as little emotional distance as possible between the creator and his audience.

For Tolstoy, at least, it would be difficult to see Warhol’s thoughts, dreams, and humanity in a stack of mass manufactured soft drink boxes.

Now let’s get to the main point; can works of art be transformed from one medium to another? While this may be difficult for a works such as Warhol’s, didacticism teaches us that if we can discover what the creator’s feelings behind the original work were, we may in fact be able to effectively make a poem into a song, a painting into a play, or a symphony into a drawing. This process of transference between mediums may be no simple task, but where human emotions are involved, it seems that this is possible to accomplish, as long as the new work presents the same feelings as the original.

The thing to keep in mind from all of this is to always ask yourself how a work of art or music makes you feel. And they don’t have to be good feelings. Art can represent anger, joy, sorrow, elation. It can show us the inner workings of human consciousness, the aspects that make us all feel human. And, admittedly, perhaps, as could be argued about Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, could make you feel mass-manufactured and unoriginal — although Tolstoy would believe this work to be void of feelings altogether. 

Here are some interesting examples to check out if you want to see this transference between mediums in progress.

Van Gogh’s Starry Night, as performed by Don McLean

Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as composed by Richard Strauss

Shakespeare’s text O Mistress Mine from Twelfth Night, as performed by Elvis Costello (excerpt)

- Brenden Varty