Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Multi-Talented Artist: Toward an Abductive Approach

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Multi-Talented Artist: Toward an Abductive Approach

Article excerpt

Artists with multiple talents are frequently alluded to by historians of both literature and the visual arts: Michelangelo, William Blake, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti are but a few names that recur, and to this list one could also add such modern examples as Ernst Barlach, D. H. Lawrence, James Thurber, and A. R. Penck. Yet multiple talent in artists, as an issue of scholarly debate, is only recently beginning to be viewed as central to the broader theoretical concern of interrelationships between the arts. Even today, moreover, although mention is often made of individuals who were productive or creative in more than one medium, seldom are the relations among their works in the different media explored in any systematic fashion.

As a way of addressing this situation, my essay will commence with a discussion of general views about the subject of the Doppelbegabung, or multi-talented artist, and why in the past it has tended to be relegated to the fringes of the interarts field. My main focus here will be on what might be termed failed solutions to the problem, and amongst these, I will argue, are those studies which rightly recognize the need to attend to formal similarities between the various media used but which lack an awareness of the kind of theoretical framework necessary for making such comparisons. Arguing then that such theorizing must begin at the most basic level of the sign and involve an examination of the interpretive process itself, I will attempt to outline the requisite framework by enlisting the ideas of the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), primarily those concerned with semiotics and kinds of reasoning procedures. Although I will also be drawing on Umberto Eco's revisioning of Peirce's theories, I will conclude that when it comes to interarts issues Peirce's scientific view of abductive reasoning is more helpful than Eco's attempt to isolate a particular kind for creative works. In this way, although I will not myself provide a practical demonstration of how sign theory functions in the case of specific Doppelbegabungen, I hope to provide the methodology that will be conducive to further and more sound ways of investigating the role to be played by such artists in discussions of relations between the arts.

Approaches to the issue of Doppelbegabung are often related to two opposing views regarding the relationship between literature and the visual arts. Those like Paul and Svetlana Alpers who argue for the autonomy of the pictorial (457), or like Wilhelm Waetzoldt who maintain that art history and literary history are "independent disciplines, each [of which] explores its own subjects and develops its own methodology" (3) tend to contend that even when the same person creates works in two or more media, differing interpretive methods are necessary.(1) Thus Rene Wellek, for instance, is skeptical with regard to the appropriateness and significance of studies analyzing persons with multiple artistic talents (Theory 129). Defenders of the opposing view, that which advocates a mutual illumination of the arts, hold that the multiple-talented artist is a prime instance where "the different arts merge in the personality of one person" (Wais 17). Similarly, according to Mario Praz, "if an artist is at the same time a writer, we should be likely to find in his work the surest test of the theory of a parallel between the arts," for there is "either a latent or a manifest unity in the productions of the same artist in whatever field he tries his hand" (40-54). Peter V. Zima concurs (ix), as does Thomas Jensen Hines: "Such variables as the artist's style, his development, and his idiosyncrasies tend to carry over from one art to the next, thus making discussion and understanding considerably easier" (15).

Such extreme positions, however, are scarcely helpful in dealing with the issue of the Doppelbegabung, or as Ulrich Weisstein notes: "Wellek's view is just as one-sided as that which, at the other end of the spectrum, claims that all creative activities of an artist working in several media are perfectly aligned and hence aesthetically compatible" ("Literature and the Other Arts" 261). …

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