Synaethesia is what happens when your senses get cross-wired (as in hearing a colour) and is usually associated with neurological disorders or hallucinogenic drugs. What I propose to examine here is an applied, metaphorical synaesthesia, and you’ll be pleased to know that neither neurological impairment nor mind-altering substances are required. A simple curiosity and a willingness to experiment will suffice.
In a lifetime of trying to improve my skills in various creative pursuits—decorative painting, photographic composition, guitar, and writing—I’m struck by the convergences, the aspects all the arts seem to have in common. I believe this insight is a valuable one for anyone engaged in an artistic pursuit.
Although ‘Art’ doesn’t lend itself to easy definition, we can discern the discrete building blocks of any art piece enough to name them: texture, tone, movement, light, shadow, contrast, empty space, nuance, bravura, balance, harmony, and so on. These same words can be applied to a number of disciplines, and—once understood in one context—can be equally understood in another. So a pianist who understands, say, texture and movement in music is already equipped to discern those same qualities in a painting or a prose work; and if our pianist (or even someone who understands these terms in the context of music) wants to learn one of these other art forms, he or she will likely find this understanding gives them an edge. Knowing what the component parts are in one medium will make it easier to identify them (or their absence) in another.
I think, then, that learning builds upon itself. By thinking in terms of these universal qualities, these building blocks, when considering our own created work or that of others, we can more easily spot the strengths and weaknesses of a work, and perhaps with more detachment than might otherwise be the case. If I understand the meaning and importance of empty space in a photograph, I can better recognize its presence or absence in a piece of music; similarly, a poet who understands dynamic can notice its absence in a painting.
It seems to me that many of these concepts work in antonym pairings. A short list follows, and though they may not all transpose equally well to every art form, I think there’s enough applicability here for most of us to find the notion worth exploring.
Static / Dynamic
Light / Dark
Balance / Imbalance
Symmetry / Asymmetry
Smooth / Textured
Balance / Tension // Dynamic balance
Contrast / Equal tones
Focus / Fuzziness
Bravura / Timidity
Spirit / Technique (non-exclusive opposites; used in sense of driving the work)
Empty Space (aka ‘blank space’)
It’s very possible I’m reinventing the wheel here… In which case, well, that’s not unusual for an autodidact, as touched on in my post, “Are We There Yet?’. I do know that academics in the visual arts can get very defensive when scholars from ‘text-based disciplines’ stray into their territory, but since I’m neither an academic nor a critic and have no pretension to either, I offer this up as a dilettante ever eager to embrace anything which will help deepen my understanding of what I’m doing. Try it for yourself: grab the words from this list and use each as a lens, a filter, when next assessing a piece of music, art, writing, even an essay or article, yours or someone else’s. I think you’ll find them very useful.