Locating the Anomalous: Gesualdo, Blake, and Seurat

By Whitted, Brent E. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 1998 | Go to article overview

Locating the Anomalous: Gesualdo, Blake, and Seurat


Whitted, Brent E., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


A major concern of much interarts scholarship today is finding a pedagogically sound rhetoric of comparison-making and a supra-disciplinary discourse that enables one to discover what might be called a "collective aesthetic consciousness" beneath the distinctive languages of the various arts. Claus Cluver, for example, argues that critics need to develop terms and methods for analyzing and comparing "individual texts created in different sign systems," as well as criteria "by which such comparisons may be judged" (16). In an essay entitled "Against Comparison," however, W. J. T. Mitchell suggests that such approaches are but one means of building bridges between disciplines; as he sees it, our "necessary subject matter" should be "the whole ensemble of relations among media," and for him "[d]ifference is just as important as similarity, antagonism as crucial as collaboration, dissonance as interesting as harmony" (31).

Concerns like these become especially pressing in the case of artists who are at odds with the traditions of their contemporaries, for the question now is: with whom can they be compared? The related problem is how to account for their "difference," since in today's critical climate - with its emphasis on cultural conditioning and historical specificity - it is no longer possible to invoke traditional notions of "inspiration" or "divine intervention." To date, the solution has mainly and rightly taken the form of attempting to invent new classifications and interpretive strategies, but the terms devised for this endeavor have tended to take the form of broadening existing period categories - as in the case of the post-x syndrome (postmodernism and postimpressionism). In other cases, scholars of one discipline (such as musicologists) have appropriated period categories (such as 'Mannerism') that scholars of another discipline (such as art historians) have used to classify established periods in their own frameworks. Overall the problem would seem to lie in the adherence to chronology in conjunction with the tendency to cluster artists representing "dominant" styles into "major" aesthetic-historical "periods" that proceed from one to the next. This adherence leaves to the side the anomalous artist, whose deliberate retreat from his/her aesthetic tradition enables the development of an intensely private creativity, and who cannot be subjected to historical periodization precisely because such categorization involves assessing the extent to which an artist "masters" the rules that delineate a "style." The anomalous artist creates his/her own "rules" and because this involves the discovery of innovative means for disregarding all generic boundaries between artistic modes and medias, such artists also cannot be accommodated by a critical procedure which adheres to established notions of difference between artistic modes and medias.

As I see it, in order to release the anomalous artist from the double-bind of periodization and disciplinarity, we need to examine a number of concrete instances and thereby derive a methodology that examines the implications of the artist's deliberate independence from his/her socio-artistic context. The key to this methodology is the construction of a working vocabulary that enlists and secularizes critical approaches concerned with the transcendence dynamic of the creative process. Although Angus Fletcher's notion of the "prophetic moment" is now seemingly dated, the terminology he employed in his 1971 study of Spenser's The Faerie Queene lends itself very well to a revisionist project with such cross-historical and cross-disciplinary demands. In this essay, therefore, I will begin by briefly sketching the major contentions on which Fletcher grounds his critical terms; I then consider the work of three artists, each representative of a different "composite" art and historical period: the Italian "Mannerist" madrigalist Carlo Gesualdo (c. 1560-1613), the English "Post-Enlightenment" poet-artist William Blake (1757-1827), and the French "Post-Impressionist" painter Georges Seurat (1859-1891). …

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