"I Sing My Sorrow and I Paint My Joy": Joni Mitchell's Songs and Images

Article excerpt


Joni Mitchell is best known as a musician. She is a popular music superstar, and has been since the early 1970s. Surprisingly, considering Mitchell's status in the music world, she has often said that for her, painting is primary, music and writing secondary. Regarding Mingus, her 1979 jazz album, she commented that with it she "was trying to become the Jackson Pollock of music." In a 1998 interview Mitchell reflected, "I think of myself as a painter who writes music." (1)

In our era, when many critics and philosophers view interarts relationships with suspicion, it is remarkable that Mitchell persists so vigorously in creating work that involves multiple arts. To consider Mitchell's art as the productions of a multi-talented person does not get us far with the works themselves, since this approach immediately invokes the abstractions and speculations of psychology. On the other hand, postmodernism has taught us that there is no absolute, transcendent meaning available as content for various forms. In the face of such strong objections to coalescing arts, Mitchell insists through her works that her art is intrinsically multidisciplinary and needs to be understood as such.

Interarts relationships have been studied at least since Aristotle decreed that the lexis, the words, takes precedence over the opsis, the spectacle, of drama. Although recognized as being distinct, the arts have also commonly been discussed as though they are analogous. Music is said to possess colour and texture; paintings display rhythm and harmony; history is dramatic; a novel's characters are finely drawn. The use of terms from one art to describe a quality in another art, however, can lead to confusion. In the early 1940s, comparative literature scholar Rene Wellek warned against simply transferring key terms from art to art, advocating instead a comparison of structural components. Still, such transferred characterizations might be "merely" - innocently - metaphorical, ways to verbalize qualities using vocabulary from different fields.

But Leonard Diepeveen argues that most analogies with metaphors at their centre - rather than non-metaphorical objects - do not hold up. To assert that a poem and a painting share the (metaphorical) characteristic of "depth," for instance, entails over-generalizing at best, and at worst, "it hides significant differences in application between the halves of the comparison." "Depth" in paintings usually refers to a sense of three-dimensional space, whereas paintings are actually two-dimensional; "depth" in poems is altogether different, possibly referring to themes, allusions, or levels of language. Diepeveen stops short of altogether banning metaphor from interarts comparisons, mainly because so much of our language is metaphoric. He insists, though, that the basis for comparison must be stated in as "non-metaphoric" terms as possible, and that the uniqueness of each art being compared must be clearly established at the outset. He suggests, for example, that the technique of quoting from other works could be a similarity of some paintings and some poems. (2)

W.J.T. Mitchell, another contemporary authority on text-image studies, is also opposed to traditional methods of comparing writing with art. In his book Picture Theory, he argues that these comparisons, which unify the fields of representation and discourse, assume a single master code based on mimesis, semiosis, and/or communication. However, Professor Mitchell continues, sometimes text-image studies are not so fruitless. He says that William Blake's poems and engravings, for instance, are often interdependent and require consideration together - not only how the expressions in the different media compare, but how they are juxtaposed, blended, and separated.

To a greater or lesser extent, "all arts are composite arts," Professor Mitchell observes in Picture Theory. (3) Joni Mitchell is conscious of this fact; her grade seven teacher in Saskatoon, Arthur Kratzmann, told her that "If you can paint with a brush, you can paint with words. …