Theories of artistic evolution

Carlo Gesualdo was a 16th century prince famous for murdering his wife and her lover in his own bed when he caught them in flagrante delicto there. He left their bodies in front of the palace and moved away to Ferrara, where the most progressive composers of his era lived. After learning from them, he returned to his palace — as a nobleman he was immune to prosecution — and isolated himself there for the rest of his life, doing little else but composing music and hiring singers to perform it for him.

Tortured by guilt, his mental health deteriorated. He had his own servants beat him, and tried to obtain his uncle’s bones as magical relics that might cure his mental problems. As time passed, his music became increasingly emotional and desperate, as well as more experimental. His last book of madrigals is probably the most insane music of its era, so insane that no significant composer followed in his chromatic footsteps for about 300 years, and only then in very different styles. Gesualdo represents a fascinating dead end in musical history.

The painter Van Gogh underwent a similar descent into madness, famously cutting off his own ear and later being admitted to an asylum. Simultaneously, his paintings became increasingly wild and impressionistic.

More recently, The Beatles’ introduction to LSD corresponded with the experimental turn in their music kicked off with Revolver tracks like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” then Sgt. Pepper, then “Revolution 9” and others from the white album.

In all three cases, my brain wants to tell a story about how the artists’ madness (either chronic or temporarily induced) was the driving force behind their increasing creativity.

But whenever your brain wants to tell a story about something, it’s a good idea to take a breath and generate some alternate hypotheses. What else could explain the above cases of artistic change, and indeed artistic change in general?

The theory I favor is that psychological and sociological pressures drive artists toward increasing novelty. No artist makes a name for herself by doing what Beethoven or Turner or Eliot have already done in music, painting, and poetry. No, the artist must do something new, like Igor Stravinsky did when he invented heavy metal in 1913, or like John Adams did when he fused Beethovenian symphonic romanticism with minimalism, or — sigh — like John Cage did when he composed a piece of music instructing the pianist to sit silently at a piano for four and half minutes.1

I do know of at least one case where drugs were directly responsible for inventing a new artistic style. In 1956, blues singer Jay Hawkins entered the studio to record a refined love ballad called “I Put a Spell on You.” But first the producer brought in ribs and chicken and beer and got everybody drunk. Jay was so drunk he couldn’t remember the recording session, but when they played back the tape it turned out he had just screamed the song to death like a demented madman, thus accidentally inventing goth rock. After that he performed the song in a long cape after rising out of an onstage coffin, and became known as “Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.”

  1. If you want to read more on this subject, Martindale’s The Clockwork Muse surveys other theories that seem much less plausible, for example that artistic style changes to reflect the cultural zeitgeist. []

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