Eidetic vs. Idiomatic Art

cave paintPerhaps this potential bifurcation of art creation is theorized elsewhere with more nuance, but I have been struck recently by a division in the world of artistic mimesis. Simply, some art is created and as it is created becomes the art work itself. For the most part these creations are immutable and become and remain “the thing itself”. Here I have in mind all visual art (painting, photography, sculpture), most literary arts such as poetry and novels. These arts are created and then possibly reproduced, but the hand of the artist is nevertheless directly “visible”. We could call this form of art creation “idiomatic” in that the work remains forever in the idiom of the artist; the creation is characteristic of the artist in her time and most importantly doesn’t require an interpreter to engender meaning.

Which leads us to a different form of art creation in which the artist creates a work, but in so doing is simultaneously imagining its performance or interpretation. These arts are written down as a set of instruction manuals from which anyone or group can create a unique manifestation. romeoThis art is thus not specifically located in any space, but is located “outside”, in another zone and it is only through human processes that our idea of these works take form. A work of theater is perhaps the most obvious example: The imaginative process of the creative artist here is not solely centered on the page and the careful arrangement of words (as in the poem or novel) but with a hypothetical arrangement of individuals who will provide the ultimate form to the words on the page. The majority of music writing similarly has this same tension in which the composer will write down a score of music with instructions to instrumentalists, or a songwriter will compose a series of music and lyrics with the intention that the art will be performed. The music which is notated isn’t really the art itself but an ideal form of that art which must be interpreted by humans or computers in order to allow us to experience it. We could call this form of art creation “eidetic”, an echoing of “eidos” (Greek for “form” in the Platonic sense) and locates the art more in the mind than in the material work. Here, the work is “seen” but only seen in the mind as perhaps the imagination of a performance or a collection of performances that in the mind nevertheless combine into one work.

Does this matter and what are the historical processes that have shaped the vicissitudes of the “performing arts”? Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction doesn’t really pinpoint this difference in artistic creation although much of what he writes resonates with an approach that would see a division here. What I see as perhaps the most salient feature with this potential split in artistic creation is the generative artistic process itself. The painter’s relationship with a canvas, the sculptor’s relationship with clay, the novelist’s relationship with words is fundamentally different from the eidetic artist’s relationship with his or her media. The medium in this case is a means, not an end. And even if the means is nothing more than a set of notes that describes how a performance was produced, even these informal notes, script, or diagrams allow for other future interpretations of the work that may be able to access the ideas in different ways. And the assumption that most eidetic creators are aware of this potential for future reincarnations of the work points towards a difference in the state of mind of the creator.

The eidetic artist relies on a community to realize his or her work and the historical development of communities of performers will shape this imagination. The relationship between the community that will realize the work and the work itself is often so close that one could criticize that there is no “outside” or “ideal” form that really is occurring the mind of the creator at all. musicThe troupe of actors or musicians are right at hand, bound by tradition, and one simply writes with them in mind as the painter takes the palate of colors and begins the work of creation. But nevertheless I maintain that there will forever be that slippage between the signifier and the signified, and this real slipping point allows the creator the chance, always, to revolutionize the mimetic process because of the imaginary power that goes beyond custom and tradition. One thinks here of the “impossible” stage directions of dramatist Sarah Kane, for instance.

These were reproducible works of art before the age or mechanical reproduction. What is their fate today? Benjamin is obsessed with film, wary of it:

In comparison with the stage scene, the filmed behavior item lends itself more readily to analysis because it can be isolated more easily. This circumstance derives its chief importance from its tendency to promote the mutual penetration of art and science. Actually, of a screened behavior item which is neatly brought out in a certain situation, like a muscle of a body, it is difficult to say which is more fascinating, its artistic value or its value for science.

Film is perhaps the most idiomatic of art forms as it is forever preserved, crystalline, for us to view even in the palm of our hand. Screenplays perhaps exist in an uneasy relationship to the eidetic arts, but still they must maintain some affinity as movies are often “remade”. brando godfatherIs the imaginary process of the screenwriter the same as that of the playwright? Could one reshoot the screenplay to Taxi Driver or The Godfather and what would this act even mean? What does it mean that to even imagine the reenvisioning of “classic” screenplays feels somewhat heretical? It would seem that the screenplay is somehow written in a different state of mind? A state of mind that is not unlike the architect’s sketches and blueprints for a monumental building? Instead of creating a script that will be interpreted thousands of times we have here a set of instructions for a specific group of technicians and artisans who will come together and create a permanent and unique icon.

So we encounter some theoretical stumbling blocks. Benjamin writes of the death of the cult aspect of art and the concomitant death of the auratic.

…for the first time – and this is the effect of the film – man has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura.For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it. The aura which, on the stage, emanates from Macbeth, cannot be separated for the spectators from that of the actor. However, the singularity of the shot in the studio is that the camera is substituted for the public. Consequently, the aura that envelops the actor vanishes, and with it the aura of the figure he portrays.

What Benjamin skips over is the aura is also a necessary feature of eidetic art that requires someone or something to briefly represent or fill in for the work-of-art-itself. Hamlet or Tosca is somewhere else, especially when he or she is on stage in front of me as played by an actor. This is a fundamental difference Benjamin sees with film and helps us navigate the problems of why remaking a screenplay seems so wrong and filmed plays and musicals so strange:

 The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera. Consequently the audience takes the position of the camera; its approach is that of testing. This is not the approach to which cult values may be exposed.

The reproduction of art in Benjamin’s sense is technological. The reproduction of eidetic art on the other hand is political in the sense that it require a polis in which citizens are capable of gathering to recreate the art. “Let us put up a production.”

Why does it seem that the eidetic arts are dying? Or that where they were traditionally one way–as in writing a song that can and will be interpreted by many singers–they are now another way–a song is released with a specific, idiomatic sound that nearly binds the song to that particular manifestation of the song. In a reverse motion the world of art perhaps with its move towards conception swings away from an idiomatic reliance on material substance and finds itself in an eidetic realm where the “idea” of the work trumps its being-there. Or as Sol LeWitt put it in 1967:

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.


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