Variations on a Theme

September 18th, 2004 · 1 Comment
by Booksquare

Once upon a time, we took an art history class. We still remain perplexed that art was defined as sculpture and painting with a smattering of architecture. Are those areas not broad enough on their own that they deserve individual treatment like the various forms of literature and music? Are literature and music not art?

The end result: we can identify certain paintings and sculptures and something called a relief, which to us is like a sculpture, but not. Still can’t draw to save our life, but we found we like the strong lines of Caravaggio. Also that we still disliked the works of Jackson Pollack. No amount of education will change that.

We also got an A — surely that was an accomplishment as well.

We learned the definition of a masterpiece: a work (presumably in most cases) actually created by the master. It changes how you look at the value of artistic works; all the authentication in the world cannot change the fact that unless you were there, saw the thing painted with your own two (or more) eyes, made specific note of something that set the work apart from every other piece produced by the master’s studio…yes, what is real and what is not has always been a rough concept. Long before photo duplication and silk screening and such, artists used human labor to churn out paintings. Keeping up with market demands has always been a challenge, and unique works of art were not as common as modern thinking believes.

We’ve talked about how artists, writers, get slotted into a particular marketing niche by fans and publishers. The more we think about it, the more we believe fans have been trained to expect more of the same from artists. If every artist followed his or her* instinct rather than the marketing department’s, fans would likely follow. We think about Elvis Costello by way of example. While he’s pretty much stuck with music, he lets himself wander down a variety of genre paths. He’s not necessarily good at everything he tries, but is that always the point? His successes and failures play out in the public domain, which makes us rather thankful that we can attempt new things without criticism from outsiders.

Elvis Costello fans do not wholeheartedly embrace everything he does. Over the years, he’s lost some, he’s gained some, he surprised some. The Blood and Chocolate springs to mind — the husband and Jim listened for the first time, fully expecting the worst: Costello had written a song with his then-new wife; it could only be bad. The husband and Jim were forced to change their misguided little tune (something about happiness being the worst thing that can happen to an angry man) within notes of the first song. Their expectations of disappointment were fulfilled with subsequent albums. If an artist elicits only complacency from fans, is it truly art?

There is, however, a major difference between a niche and a recurring theme. One thing we have noticed in our work, no matter what direction we take, is that we return to certain themes. They never appear the same way twice (we hope), but they are there. We particularly like to explore how relationships change as they mature; brand new relationships don’t interest us in the same way.

Perhaps it’s because newness offers so many facets at once, whereas surprises revealed years into a friendship (or marriage) have more impact. When your capacity for surprise is limitless, as is the case at the beginning of a relationship, every new thing falls to the same level. Once you’ve settled on a definition of another person, new words change your world. How can you not be spun out of control when you learn that, for the past twenty years, a male friend has been sneaking out, dressed as a woman? A week into the relationship, it would be matter-of-fact; two decades in, it changes everything.

The other night, our friend Jean said (please imagine the British accent as we can’t write them very well), “I’m amazed at how everyone has grown more beautiful over the years.” The husband’s martinis bring out the philosopher in everyone. It isn’t so much that our physical appearances have morphed into something that should be displayed on magazine covers; it’s that there is depth, richness, familiarity, capacity for true surprise, and even maturity in our interactions. We enjoy exploring the evolution of friendships because of how people change over time — and how we respond to those changes. Plus our friends really have grown more beautiful. We attribute it to clean living.

We suspect that most artists focus on a theme until they’ve resolved all aspects in their mind (or until they’ve worked through whatever emotional block the theme represents). What is the purpose of art if not therapy? We have had the kind of week where this particular theme has been strong. We’ve been poking and prodding at the idea that not all relationships are meant to be permanent, despite being seemingly carved in stone. Just like some rocks appear to be shoved together haphazardly, forming an uncomfortable junction, such is the way of some families and friends. We remain friendly with our first college roommate; our friend Andrea doesn’t remember the name of hers, yet they, by definition, were bonded together in a way that formed a sort of friendship.

The question that we’ve picking up and looking at from all sides is how do you continue when relationships end? It is not always the case that breaks are clean; jagged edges and threads persist. When a couple ends a marriage, who gets custody of the friends? Once, we were assigned to one friend after a nasty break-up because the other friend felt he had no right. His mind could not wrap itself around the idea of equal loyalty. It was an odd form of chivalry. In other instances, we’ve spent a year or so choosing words carefully because we were part of a joint custody settlement and never knew for sure how communication was flowing. We were right to do this as the couple resolved their issues; it was best that we’d listened without speaking. If siblings break up, how do the parents manage divided loyalties? Can we be both human and mature when emotions are involved?

Exploring a theme is not the same as being stuck in niche. The more you look at something, the more fascinating it becomes. Like moving a vase to a different room, putting your favorite themes in new, more challenging situations leads to surprises. Especially if it’s a theme you’ve lived with for a long time.

* – It is our lot in life to be in a situation where we frequently confront the fact that there are more than two possible choices in this instances. We are not so much bi-genderist as we are lazy.

File Under: Tools and Craft

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