I watched a PBS/BBC program a few nights ago about Leonardo Da Vinci. Much like a good writer, he apprenticed his craft for years, and then took that experience and moved in directions never imagined before. One segment explained what made the Mona Lisa a great painting: it was a technique he developed over the years of applying paint in many layers. A white base paint, then layer after layer of color, each one semitransparent to let those underneath show through, over and over, until the skin of the Mona Lisa glowed like real skin. Unlike other painters of his day, he did not outline his subject first, but created his paintings whole, in what’s called sfumato—in the manner of smoke. He was also a man who was fascinated by science, mathematics, fashion and current events. And his paintings showed that he used all these influences in developing his art.
This resonated with me, as I revise my “other” novel, a historical fiction, which follows events from the beginning of World War I through the perspectives of three characters. I find I am adding layer upon layer of causality and relationship. No wonder it’s taken years to put this book together.
It also reminded me of how the different modes of art have informed each other over the centuries. Leonardo’s revolutionary painting technique not only influenced the painters who came after him, it also inspired artists in other genres, such as writers, although Da Vinci was so far ahead of his time that it took many years before books as layered as his paintings were written.
But I can’t help thinking of the relationships among the arts and how they seem to follow each other’s leads in reflecting the world. Perhaps the most obvious example is the art of the early twentieth century, a period of tremendous political upheaval. As populations (especially in Europe) tore down centuries of monarchical tradition, replacing them with raw, imperfect and populist forms of government, so too did the arts dismiss traditional styles of painting, music and writing, in favor of works that reflected the chaos of the times: Dada in art, the dissonance of Ives, Schoenberg and others in symphonic music, and the modernism and minimalism of Eliot, Hemingway, Stein and many others.
So if art and culture continue to influence each other, what have we got today?
While traditional forms persist, we often get our news in sound bites and our prose in flash fiction. Popular culture is a mash-up of interest groups, manipulated by multi-national corporations so that art is translated into some kind of material consumption. As I review books and journals for LA Review, I see many queries for books that were clearly written to make a few bucks off the cultural trend of the week. And I see “literary” works so obscure and self-referential that I can’t begin to crack their code, which strike me as a protest against the crass commercialism of the mainstream.
If anything, this strikes me as reflective of the political polarization in which we now function, each faction existing in a vacuum and pretending the others don’t matter, that the only knowledge worth having is what’s already sanctioned by the party or the group. But I can’t help thinking that 500 years ago, Leonardo had it right, that art (and life) should be a synthesis of the knowledge from all disciplines and viewpoints to create something real and meaningful.
I’ll try to remember that as I write.