In 1877, Ruskin accused Whistler of ’flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’. Was he right? After all, Whistler always denied that the true function of art was to represent anything. If a painting does not represent, what is it, other than mere paint, flung in the public’s face? Whistler’s answer was simple: painting is music - or it is poetry. Georges Braque, half a century later, echoed Whistler’s answer. So did Braque’s friends Apollinaire and Ponge. They presented their poetry as music too - and as painting. But meanwhile, composers such as Satie and Stravinsky were presenting their own art - music - as if it transposed the values of painting or of poetry. The fundamental principle of this intermedial aesthetic, which bound together an extraordinary fraternity of artists in all media in Paris, from 1885 to 1945, was this: we must always think about the value of a work of art, not within the logic of its own medium, but as if it transposed the value of art in another medium. Peter Dayan traces the history of this principle: how it created our very notion of ’great art’, why it declined as a vision from the 1960s and how, in the 21st century, it is fighting back.
Peter Dayan is Professor of Word and Music Studies at the University of Edinburgh, UK. His influential book Music Writing Literature, from Sand via Debussy to Derrida (Ashgate, 2006) showed how, since the time of the Romantics, poetry has been creating a space which music needs, and vice versa. All his more recent work, on 20th-century writers, painters and composers from Julio Cortazar to Igor Stravinsky, has revolved around the question of why art in any given medium so compulsively defines itself as if it were in a different medium - and how this intermedial round actually provides a surprisingly resilient definition of art itself.
'The subtlety of the analysis is a particularly impressive aspect of Dayan’s argument: no word is left unquestioned, no visual image is glossed over, no statement is taken for granted in the quest to elucidate even the most gnomic utterances of these artists... He is an engaging guide to the subtleties of his subject, knowing just when he can effectively lapse into informal chattiness or share a first-person confidence, and he can also be quite self-deprecating - although one can afford to be modest when one has written a book of this quality... This study will most readily appeal to those whose interests, like Dayan's, extend beyond a single specialism to the arts in general, but it is still a must for anyone interested in this period or the artists under consideration.' Modern Language Review
'This book is a valuable addition to the growing body of work on interdisciplinary exchange within Western art, music and literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries... an admirable work, and one that continues to provoke a scholarly discussion with the reader long after it is put down.' Music in Art
'... an interesting book... [Dayan's] conclusions are often refreshingly new.' Art History
'This engaging and meticulous book is essential reading for anyone fascinated by the visceral quality of the arts, and life on the flowing but obstinate borders between them’. French Studies