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Music for the Heart, Art for the Head?
Kandinsky, our emotional responses to art and a smidgen of psychology
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about art that stirs strong emotions in me, and why that happens. The workings of our minds on this are complex, and the brilliant psychologist Leila Ainge has written a fascinating article about why some people are more likely to be moved to tears by art than others.
Although I’ve often cried in response to an artwork, music consistently generates more strong feelings in me than the visual arts do. I wonder how common this is, and if it is largely the case, then why? The street artist Shepard Fairey has talked about the importance of his relationship to music, how it makes us feel, and how it generates an emotional response that primes us for the intellectual message of the lyrics, if there are any.
In his teenage years Fairey discovered punk rock, and long before he understood the anarchic lyrics of those songs, the spirit of the music, the energy of it, had primed him to receive the social message. In this short video he talks about how he tries to create that same effect in his art, so that it can be a vehicle for social change that is just as powerful as music:
The early 20th century artist Wassily Kandinsky believed that art had the power to affect the soul just as music does. Back in those days Kandinsky was making the case for his ground-breaking abstract art. His argument was that music doesn't represent anything, and neither should art. And that colour, line and shape could be manipulated to hit you right there, just as your favourite songs do. Kandinsky said colour was the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, and the soul is the piano with its strings. The artist is the hand that plays. We all respond to art in different ways according to our own personal experiences, and I’ve never had the response looking at Kandinsky’s work that he was trying to create. Still, I find this video of Kandinsky from 1925 totally mesmerising:
The British artist John Akomfrah is another visual artist for whom music and sound are absolutely fundamental to his creative process and output. He describes music as ‘sonic ways of knowing the world’, and that concept totally resonates with me. It often all just makes sense when I’m listening to music.
What I love about Akomfrah's work is the way he combines archival footage and music or sound to create feeling. Music for him is as important a tool for communicating ideas as anything else. The combination of the two, how they work together, is what makes his work so interesting for me. He talks about how ‘noise suggests direction for images’.
Akomfrah also talks about how the music in his films has been described as ‘vulgar’, in the sense that it’s pop culture. What he’s highlighting is the perception that art is exclusive and cerebral as opposed to the everyday and emotional nature of music.
Is it generally true that music is for the heart and art is for the head? Does listening to music move something inside you more often than looking at art does?