From the “Mutual Illumination of the Arts” to “Studies of Intermediality”

From the “Mutual Illumination of the Arts” to “Studies of Intermediality”

Claus Clüver (Indiana University, Bloomington, USA)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 12
DOI: 10.4018/IJSVR.2019070104
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This article offers an overview of the development of the interdisciplinary study of the interrelations of the arts and media during the past one-hundred years. From a focus on the binary relations of literature and the visual arts, music, and film these investigations turned into what came to be called “Interarts Studies” with a new tendency to include the interrelations of non-verbal arts and also to study configurations of a decidedly non-artistic nature. In the 1990s this would lead to the reconception of the arts as well as the applied arts and some non-artistic genres as media and their interrelations as intermediality. Simultaneously there began full-fledged attempts to construct a theoretical foundation for the study of intermediality (and transmediality) as a humanistic field, emphasizing media combination, intermedial reference, and intermedial transposition, especially adaptation. This article highlights developments in the German- and English-language discourse on these matters.
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Wechselseitige Erhellung der Künste, translated into English as The Mutual Illumination of the Arts, was the title of a book published by the German literary scholar Oskar Walzel in 1917. Its subtitle has been rendered as A Contribution to the Appreciation of Concepts of Art History; it signals the indebtedness of Walzel’s thesis to the work of the art historian Heinrich Wölfflin, his exact contemporary, whose Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe (Principles of Art History) had appeared two years before. It was the title as well as the argument that made Walzel’s work symptomatic of a tendency which began to assert itself in German academic circles at the beginning of the 20th century, when literary history had firmly established itself at universities as a scholarly discipline, followed by art history and finally by music history. Wölfflin’s was an attempt to give his field a solid methodological foundation. He proposed five antithetical pairs of basic concepts for contrasting High Renaissance and Baroque art: linear vs. painterly, plane vs. recession, closed vs. open form, multiplicity vs. unity, and absolute vs. relative clarity of form. Walzel felt that these concepts could be fruitfully applied to the formal analysis of literary texts, and not only to texts of the periods studied by Wölfflin.

The German scholar not only referred to similar tendencies among his contemporaries to borrow terms and concepts used in the study of the other arts, but repeatedly quoted pronouncements by German Romantic thinkers concerning artistic interrelations. He also cited the saying attributed to the Greek philosopher Simonides of Ceos (556-468 BCE) that “Painting is mute poetry and poetry a speaking picture” and thus referred to the ancient history of a discourse that has linked painting and poetry as “sister arts,” as they came to be viewed in the 17th century. That discourse is best known under a phrase borrowed from the Augustan poet Horace’s “ars poetica” (19 BCE), the phrase “ut pictura poesis,” mistakenly taken to mean “as is painting, so is poetry.” These two arts, understood as practices, were primarily seen as concerned with mimetic representation. Plato and Aristotle had explored that view, many centuries later Leonardo da Vinci had stylized it as a rivalry in a comparison of the arts, a “paragone” in which he had given painting the advantage, and it was still the concept that prompted Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s distinction, in his Laokoön of 1766, between sculpture and painting as spatial arts and poetry as a temporal art, basic conditions that required different modes of representation.

There is no comparable history dealing with the relations between music and poetry (or literature, as we call it today). In the classical scheme of the seven liberal arts music was one of the arts of the quadruvium as a mathematical art dealing with relations, close to architecture; the arts of the basic trivium were concerned with the verbal, with grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, dealt with the effects of speech on the listener. This interest also informed another aspect of theories concerning the visual arts besides that of mimetic representation, and until the eighteenth-century issues of the effect on listeners were also crucial in theoretical discussions of music.

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