by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle
I’ve been thinking a lot about the spirit of Art—of poetry, graphics, books, and in particular, songs. As an animist at heart, I think even non-tangible things have spirit. While art does not have personhood, does it have spirit-hood? Does that spirit transcend its creator? Does it transcend the creator’s intention and original inspiration?
I remember the debate from poetry class—if a reader got a meaning from a poem separate from the original intention of the author, was that interpretation valid? At the time I was both an aspiring poet and chemistry guy, and I was fighting the math-science guy, who believed that the original author’s interpretation is the only interpretation. He argued that you could have your own idea about a poem’s meaning, but it would be wrong if it were different from the author’s (he was a very binary kinda guy). I remember similar questions in music appreciation class while in college for my music degree (I took a turn from chemistry to voice). Context is important, but songs will often outlive their context, particularly if the theme is ambiguous enough to be open for interpretation. Sometimes the author will unconsciously invoke themes in both the composition and recording style without always intending it. Yet those unfamiliar with such references will not know either. Someone can certainly influence your relationship with a piece of art or music by giving you greater context, but does it fundamentally change your relationship with the art?
I think about the interpretation of songs by different artists and different styles. Once, a friend and I were working on a project, but my friend felt we must be as true to the composer’s intentions as possible by doing only what was on the paper score and nothing more. I tend to have a more fluid approach and find that music, particularly in the context of ritual, will morph with the consciousness of the people performing it, and the more you try to control it, the worse the performance will be.
I think about how creativity lends itself to expanding a piano piece to a full orchestral score. I think about derivative works like parody, sampling, and movie adaptations. Artists copy the greats to learn and then make variations upon a theme. So do musicians. We all learned to take apart songs and then switch major chords to minor to hear the difference.
I think about the realm of folk music traditions, and how basic points stay, but rhythms, melodies, and even lyrics will morph over time with the people who play it. Is the spirit of the piece best served with these new artists, or is it being violated? When Tori Amos talks about her songs as “girls” or that “Cooling” told her to fuck off and that it doesn’t want to be on an album but played live, I get it. I’ve had books be very specific about their release or delay. Once released into the world, will art have its own journey and relationships with people separate from its creator, or will it always tie back to the original artist? The influence of art obviously moves forward in time, but can its effects, like magick, move backward in time to its creator? Can art redeem a flawed creator? Can someone’s interpretation, correct or not, damn an artist retroactively? This can certainly be true socially, but does art influence the artist’s “soul(s)” just as rituals of veneration can elevate the dead in the afterlife?
I think of people who “introduce” new spiritual entities to the world. Most soon lose control of any official voice if the entity is popular, as the entity has its own relationships as it grows more well known. Effective practices and interpretations get passed on, while ineffective ones don’t, at least on a folk level. We could make another argument with institutional religion, but even in those cases, folk practices remain the undercurrent, outside of the institution’s official sanctions.
A witchy science friend shared her idea that the spirit of technology is in the same boat as the spirit of art—teachings move beyond the inventor and have ramifications that could vilify a good inventor with unforeseen uses or possibly increase the good credited to an inventor with a problematic history. Do you junk a technology when the inventor uses questionable or even downright reprehensible methods to get to prove the theory? Or once a technology is out into consciousness, can it be used ethically despite its origins? Should it? Scientists probably have less of a potentially anthropomorphized relationship with their work, but maybe not. I’m imagining Tori Amos as a chemist now….
As my Witchcraft is an art as well as a science and religion, I reflect on the magick in all art, and the level of animated spirit in all art. I think the world is not nearly as simple as we’d want it to be, and I’m all for art breaking away from its creator and finding its own way through time and space, perhaps even surviving the artist’s lifetime.