Shadow And Light

There is a moderately obscure and quirky kind of art that I am very fond of, called chiaroscuro [1], where contrasts of shadow and light are used to set a scene in a painting, in photography, or in movies. As someone who does not handle direct light very well, I like the use of shading and indirect light, and find it useful not only for its literal but also for its metaphorical purposes, as do many of the artists who have adopted it for use in their various visual media.

It is to the metaphorical purposes of chiaroscuro that I now turn. It is a sad irony that artists in general are often very private people. Our works are public and out in the open, but many of us are rather private about the details of our personal lives. Nonetheless, what is written forms a shadow by which the astute reader can infer the light of an artist’s muse. Though an artist may often fob off personal questions by commenting that art is art for art’s sake, it is difficult to avoid the personal details that are revealed by the form an artist uses, because it says a lot about the preoccupations of an artist.

Sometimes, the subject of an artist’s work does not give clues to their preoccupations, but at other times it does. A commissioned work may not give the most clues to an artist’s thought processes, but the way an artist fulfills that commission certain does. Is the action light and frothy and superficial or are there dark themes and difficult questions raised by the work? The elegant but superficial court masques of Lyly, the clearly deviant works of Marlowe and the shadowy but troubling works of Shakespeare reveal different mindsets and worldviews about art, even if the medium (that is, plays) are the same.

Nonetheless, in more modern works, there are less commissions than before, and so what an artist chooses to direct his or her focus on reveals a lot about them. Do they talk about sex or love? If so, how? How do they talk about politics? Do they show any particular ideological commitments? What is their bias regarding order and freedom? Who are their heroes and villains? What do they think about religion? Do they have a consistent moral worldview, a standard of good and evil that shows in their works, even if it is not enforced in a simple-minded way, and that is realistic in showing that under the sun good is sometimes punished and evil is sometimes rewarded?

Some artists lay out their personal life in pretty gory detail, making clearly semi-autobiographical characters and laying out their family and personal business in sometimes uncomfortable levels of honest detail. Others are much more shadowy in their interests, but show consistent preoccupations that allow someone to gain an understanding into what is most fascinating or troubling for the artistic mind. Other artists seek to run the opposite direction of their longings and preoccupations, but in so doing provide a negative image that allows its inverse to be properly understood. Whichever approach we choose, as an artist our preoccupations will find us out, whether we like it or not.

There is a sort of paradox anyway in the artist trying to keep his or her private life and thoughts private while spilling their ruminations and preoccupations into artistic form, be it paintings or sculpture or music or cinema or literature or anything else. But there is more to it than that. Just as the private ruminations of artists are hard to ignore in works that inevitably end up more serious and melancholy than they have to be, so too the absence of deep personal feeling (say, in the music of Coldplay) demonstrates a similar lack of preoccupations and personal problems. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as not everyone can or should wallow in despair and traverse the valley of the shadow of death. Some people have good backgrounds and pleasant personalities and a distinct absence of suffering and misery in their lives, and are happily married to well-adjusted spouses with loving families, so why should we deny them the pleasure of making well-mannered art without angst if they so choose?

But whatever personality and background and proclivities we have, our art will find us out. We have to be aware that what we create tells on us. Sometimes it tells good things, often it does not, but it tells others how we see the world at a given time about given subjects, and gives pieces of puzzles for fans and reviewers and armchair psychoanalysts to piece ourselves back together from the pieces we give them. If we are compelled to create art, we should be forewarned that we will be discovered for who we are deep inside as a result of our art, and if we don’t want to be known we must be careful not to spill out ourselves in ways that others will see. If we are driven to share ourselves, we must accept the consequences of so doing.

This is so because every artist is engaged in the task of chiaroscuro. If one shines a light in darkness, the light will cast its shadow on all around, and allow our outlines to be seen by those around us. If we engage in shining lights for others, we will ourselves be seen as a result. For whatever reason many artists appear ignorant of this matter, and suffer accordingly because of the loss of privacy that results from their artistic abilities. That’s the price one pays for lighting a lamp in the dark cavern of the human heart, though. If we knew the price ahead of time, it would be easier to pay, and we would probably have less artists for our trouble too.

[1] For those who are unaware of the term, here is a useful explanation:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Shadow And Light

  1. Pingback: Rain Shadows | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Lit By The Sun | Edge Induced Cohesion

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