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 psychological workings of our minds on this are complex, and my brilliant friend 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 visual art does. 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 our relationship to music, and how it creates feeling in us and can be used as a force for social change. Music generates an emotional response that opens us up to being receptive to the intellectual message of the song.
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In his teenage years Fairey discovered punk rock, and long before he understood the words of those songs, the spirit of the music and the energy of it, had primed him to receive the anarchic social message of the lyrics. In this video he talks about how he tries to create that same effect in his art, so that it can be a galvanising vehicle that is just as powerful as music:
Fairey is talking about the way in which music reaches into our hearts, and that has similarities with the ideas of the early 20th century artist Wassily Kandinsky. He believed that art had the power to affect the soul just as music does. As an early pioneer of abstraction, Kandinsky used music as an analogy for his ground-breaking art. His argument was that music doesn't represent anything, and neither should art. And that colour, line and shape can be manipulated to hit you right there, just as your favourite songs do. Kandinsky said colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, and the soul is the piano with its strings. The artist is the hand that plays.
I’ve never had the response to Kandinsky’s art that he was aiming for. Still, I find this video of him painting in 1925 totally mesmerising:
Music is also absolutely fundamental to the British artist John Akomfrah. He describes music as ‘sonic ways of knowing the world’. And that concept totally resonates with me. Things often just make sense when I’m listening to music. It’s a knowledge that I get from a feeling inside me that I find hard to put into words.
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 music and visuals, how they work together, is what makes his art so interesting for me. In this video he talks about how ‘noise suggests direction for images’:
Akomfrah also talks about how the music in his films has been described by viewers 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, emotional nature of music. As Leila points out in her article, some psychologists argue that we approach art with expectations around core questions like ‘Who am I?’ ‘What is art?’ and ‘How does art relate to me?’ So if most viewers are primed to think art is intellectual or hard to understand, the emotional barrier’s already up and the tears aren’t gonna flow.
I’d be interested to know whether listening to music moves you more often than looking at art does? Is music for the heart and art for the head? Let me know your thoughts!
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I discussed two artists who repurpose old books in their art: William Kentridge and Chun Kwang Young. Their work is so tangible and yet you can’t touch it, and it sort of draws you in to a bodily experience with it:
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