Art as music, music as poetry, poetry as art: understanding the interart appeal, from Whistler to Stravinsky

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Div of European Languages and Cultures


The painter Whistler, in the last decades of the 20th century, enjoyed teasing the British critical establishment by presenting his paintings as if they were works of music, rather than representations of anything. He would give them titles such as 'Symphony in White'; he would maintain that his aim, in painting, was to create a harmony, analogous to 'pure' music (i.e. instrumental music). But he also described music as 'the poetry of sound', and painting as 'the poetry of sight'.
In presenting his paintings as both music and poetry, Whistler was in tune with an aesthetic strategy that lies behind the work of creators in all media in France in the seventy years before the second world war. (It is true that Whistler was originally American, just as Stravinsky was originally Russian; but like Stravinsky, Whistler saw in Paris the spiritual home of his ideas on art.) That strategy was conceived as a means to defend art against the objective, positive, scientific, rationalist discourses of the time, which increasingly claimed access to the value of the work of art. Saying that a painting is a song (as Braque so often did), or a symphony, or a poem, was their way of taking their art out of the reach of critics. A critic could write about the colours, lines, textures, and subjects of paintings, which were all objective properties of the painting. It was far more difficult for him to say anything apparently objective about the painting considered as a song, since the song was not objectively there. And if the painter could demand that the painting be considered simultaneously both as a song, and as a poem, then the poor objective critic was lost.
Poets and composers used the same strategies, and took them further. Apollinaire's poems became pictures; Stravinsky's music became the subject of a 'poetics'. The result of this general circulation between the arts, this proliferating interart appeal, was to create a tacit consensus, which lasted roughly from the First World War to the Second in France, concerning the nature of art: the value of each work of art was always something to which no one could have access merely by analysing what was actually, objectively and rationally, there - present - in the medium of the work of art itself.
The first aim of this project is to understand this aesthetic from the point of view of the time. This will inevitably involve a culture clash: since the interart appeal is designed to frustrate criticism, my own critical discourse will have to engage in a great deal of self-criticism to do justice to it. The second aim of the project is to suggest that, all but invisible to critics, the aesthetic of the interart appeal has never ceased to dominate our response to what we still think of as 'great art'. How else can one explain the continuing dominance, in our view of the great creators of the 20th century, of those who shared that aesthetic? How else can one explain the persistent echoes of the interart appeal itself in those non-academic discourses (from concert programmes to publishers' blurbs) that aim to connect the public to art? My contention is that by remaining blind to the implications of the interart appeal, academic criticism has become more divorced than it needs to be from the way that people today respond to art, in exhibitions and concert halls as well as when they read books. My hope is that this book will provide a means to re-connect academic discourse with that public response.


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Dayan P (2010) Apollinaire's Music in Forum for Modern Language Studies

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Dayan, P (2012) Intermediality and the Refusal of Interdisciplinarity in Stravinsky's Music in Intermedial Arts: Disrupting, Remembering, and Transforming Media

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Dayan, P (2012) Seeing Words and Music as a Painter Might: the Interart Aesthetic in Word and Music Studies: Essays on Performativity and on Surveying the Field

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Dayan, P (2009) Whistler et la poésie du son in Silène

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Peter Dayan (Author) (2012) Vers un nouveau comparatisme

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Peter Dayan (Author) Apollinaire's Music

Description I found a consistent attitude to the relationship between the arts in the writings of all the painters, poets, and composers studied, from Whistler to Richard Wright. I summarised this in my "five laws of the interart aesthetic", and it formed the basis of my book.
Exploitation Route In the academic world, and in the world of museums, galleries, and programme writing, my findings should help to inform the way that people understand and present the relationship between the arts in the European "great art" tradition, from the Romantics to the 1960s. I hope that they will also nourish a debate on the extent to which this tradition remains alive, and informs our unspoken assumptions about art, although it is now unfashionable in the academy.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description My findings have informed my publications, especially my book _Art as Music, Music as Poetry, Poetry as Art_, and these have in turn influenced many academics and research students working on the relationship between the arts in the 19th and 20th centuries. But they have also given me the skills to introduce a more general audience to the ways in which poets, painters, and composers, of all periods, construct their art by reference to art in other media, and I have been increasingly invited to give public lectures or to talk at conferences that engage with questions of creativity in art.
First Year Of Impact 2010
Sector Creative Economy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description Contemporary Poetry between Genres, Art Forms and Media 
Organisation Aalborg University
Country Denmark 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I have been invited twice to Aalborg to participate in conferences on the relationship between the arts in contemporary poetry, as part of the project, funded by the Danish government, on Contemporary Poetry between Genres, Art Forms and Media. This collaboration is set to last for another five years, as I have been awarded a Visiting Professorship at Aalborg.
Collaborator Contribution We have engaged in a very fruitful sharing of expertise. Mine is rooted in the European Continental tradition, in the period up to 1960; theirs is Anglophone, Scandinavian, and contemporary. The exchange of information and of theoretical positions has been very intellectually productive.
Impact Publications forthcoming, based on the conferences, but not yet out.
Start Year 2013
Description In conversation event with the artist Stephen Raw at the Queen's Gallery, Edinburgh 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This was a talk, in the Throne Room at Holyrood Palace, to encourage people to think about the relationship between painting, poetry, and music in the exhibition on the Poets Laureate in the Queen's Gallery. Many of the audience members were themselves artists, poets, or people who worked in the cultural sector. The talk was followed by discussion in the Gallery, which was intellectually very stimulating.

To me, the most important impact was created by the exchange between the artist Stephen Raw and myself. We met several times, and discussed the issues at length; I learned a great deal from him, and I think he enjoyed the process.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description Lecture on Whistler and Debussy at National Gallery of Scotland 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The talk certainly did spark lively discussion, and two years later, I still find people talking to me about how my talk altered their attitudes to the relationship between painting and poetry.

Nothing specific, but that was not the aim.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012