Sunday, April 01, 2012

Image and Music

by Gregg Chadwick

In response to Spring for Music's Round Two query in the 2012 Great Blogger


We live in an aggressively visual age; images dominate the popular culture. 
But which art form has the most to say about contemporary culture, and why?

Tokyo Streets
photo by Gregg Chadwick 

The dense visual language of the Tokyo cityscape immediately came to mind when I considered Spring for Music's second query in the 2012 Great Blogger Challenge.
The visual cacophony of signs and images that line the streets of the city's shopping districts provide a visual metaphor for the images that threaten to overload us each day as we turn on our computers and televisions. But do images themselves say more than other art forms about contemporary culture? The uncertainty and ambiguity often found in our 21st century lives calls for a rich cultural exploration that images may only hint at.   

When presented with an image, most people begin a process, which is often involuntary, of decoding. The mystery of the moment is often disregarded as we search for meaning as we engage in a kind of mental translation. Who or what is depicted? Should the viewer smile or cry? Would I like to possess this thing, person, moment? 

Perhaps if we look through a few photographs we can get a sense of  the problem at hand. The photo below is often confusing to individual viewers. What is happening here? Is it a sort of photoshopped collage? Without text or a caption it is difficult to pull meaning from the image.  

Context helps in the understanding of the image. I took the photo at the Ghibli Museum outside Tokyo, where the life and work of the amazing Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki is celebrated. 

It is true that we are bombarded daily by imagery. What is often missed is that this phenomenon is nothing new. For example, Lucas Cranach's copy of Hieronymous Bosch's Altarpiece with the Last Judgement provides a cornucopia of beatific and horrific imagery all at once.

Lucas Cranach
Altarpiece with the Last Judgement 
(copy of Hieronymus Bosch's triptych)

Gemäldegalerie, Berlin 
photo by Gregg Chadwick

A closer look at a detail of Cranach's painting presents symbolic messages that simultaneously dazzle the eye and imply a sonic landscape for the ear.

Lucas Cranach
Altarpiece with the Last Judgement (detail) 
(copy of Hieronymus Bosch's triptych)

Gemäldegalerie, Berlin 
photo by Gregg Chadwick

While images tend to be viewed individually or with a small group, the experience of music may be more communal. Composing is often a solitary process, but performance usually involves a give and take between musician and audience.  

Image and Music in Venice, Italy
photo by Gregg Chadwick

In this communal aspect, music has a lot to say about contemporary culture. 

Music has the ability to move us to a communal expression of hope in the face of trouble and, for at least a moment, a rush of joy. This musical rush is akin to the shared glory that spectators feel as their team triumphs on the sporting field. The philosophers Hubert Dreyfus, from UC Berkeley, and Sean Kelly, from Harvard, speak of this Homeric feeling of wonder and gratitude in their marvelous book, All Things Shining:
'There are moments in sport - either in the playing of them or in the witnessing of them - during which something so overpowering happens that it wells up before you as a palpable presence and carries you along as on a powerful wave. At that moment there is no question of ironic distance from the event. That is the moment when the sacred shines."
Like the fans at a Giants football game, the crowd at a concert also gets swept up in a joyous, sacred expression of shared hopes and dreams that hard times cannot defeat.
U2 has used their music to reflect upon contemporary global events. Drawing on the troubles in Northern Ireland, they addressed the contemporary issues in Iran. Audiences responded.

U2 performing Sunday Bloody Sunday during their 360 degrees world tour at the Rose Bowl on October 25th, 2009.

As the song Sunday Bloody Sunday opens, U2 scrolls the lyrics from the Rumi poem Azadi. The word Azadi itself simply means Freedom. U2 supported Artists 4 Freedom by using the Rumi poem which provides the lyrics to Dj Spooky and Sussan Deyhim's track, Azadi (The New Complexity). U2's multimedia screens mash together the lyrics to Azadi along with photos of the protestors in Iran and artworks by Shirin Neshat. I too was inspired and painted Neda the day after her murder in Iran.

The Call - ندا -Neda

Gregg Chadwick
The Call - ندا -Neda
36"x48" oil on linen 2009

Bruce Springsteen's most recent album Wrecking Ball is a scathing indictment of the current state of American society. This album weaves together history, politics, and contemporary societal issues to create a powerful musical expression that challenges and then ultimately unites and ignites his audience. The powerful songs on this album have inspired me in relation to image and meaning.

Gregg Chadwick
Call and Echo
24"x18" oil on linen 2011 

Living Colour's version of Springsteen's American Skin (41 Shots) is a heartbreaking song that honors the senseless death of Amadou Diallo at the hands of the NYPD as he reached for his wallet in an attempt to placate a group of undercover cop's demands. More than once, because of this event, I have told my son, "If an officer stops you - Promise me, you always be polite. And that you'll never. never run away. Promise that you'll always keep your hands in sight."

The death of Trayvon Martin has obviously weighed on Bruce Springsteen and his audiences this past week in Tampa, Boston, and Philadelphia. During three consecutive shows, the band played American Skin (41 Shots) and Springsteen released the professionally shot video on his website along with the lyrics to the song. On Wednesday night in Philadelphia, Springsteen dedicated the song with the words, "This is for Trayvon."

Clearly, music creates a dynamic interaction with a live audience that speaks to and of contemporary culture in powerful and life affirming ways.


A Bonifield said...

As disappointed as I am in not "advancing" to Round 3, myself, I am aghast that this educated, perceptive blog with simple, clear voice failed to advance, either. Reviewing some that did advance, I wonder about the selection criterion. My blog did not receive enough community support to advance (Texas is still the boonies, I guess) but this blog is both strongly supported and extremely well-written.
Best regards,
Alexandra Bonifield
Critical Rant
Dallas TX

gregg chadwick said...

Thanks for your comments on my blog and art. I am touched by your words and inspired by your conviction!
I am happy to meet you via Carnegie Hall:)