Take the works of Stephen King, Haruki Murakami and Erik Satie. What do these three artists have in common?
They all wrote the same piece several times. Not all their works are typical of this, but by far their most famous are. Satie’s Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes, King’s Under the Dome, It, and The Stand, and Murakami’s entire bibliography share the characteristic of writing the same piece of art over and over again, exploring the same motifs and the same themes from different angles.
Satie’s Gymnopedies, with their odd, Ancient Greek title and dolorous melodies, are famous. Erik Satie was a rather strange man; there’ll be more to say about him later. I’ve heard, also, many different interpretations of the Gymnopedies, ranging from the relatively brisk and unnerved to the classically despondent. The first piece has a simple bass line and a melody that reinterprets the other two: none of the three is really the ‘original’ piece. The second Gymnopedie retains the left hand, and the right hand plays a melancholy melody. The third sounds similar – all three share intervals, similar bass lines, and none of them stand out when compared. They could very easily be considered one longer piece. The Gnossiennes are a much darker, much more mysterious take on those three pieces, but they retain a similar musical structure. And between the six of them, (although there is seemingly much more variation) they could also be seen as one long piece.
King, whatever he wants to explore, does it best in the small American town – with the archetypes that come from an almost parodic mind. The rich Republican governor who often pits himself against the protagonist, and whose family has some dark secret. The plucky journalist/writer, who may or may not be the protagonist, and if not will probably ally themselves with the protagonist at some point. The dusky, dirty bars, where grubby and rude patrons gather in droves to discuss news relevant and irrelevant to the story. The classic 1980’s bullies. A small group of plucky kids with names like Chuck, Todd, or Becky. A slow invasion of horror into the story, or an escalation of the terror felt at its initial appearance. The implication, then, that something large and terrible exists outside of us, and if it doesn’t feel malice, it feels ambivalence – or is merely a state of the world, and cannot ‘feel’. Which is worse? And then, of course, in typical King fashion, the disappointing finale, the realisation that King has once again pulled a Tokugawa and wasted your time.
I’m not saying he does this all the time, obviously; only, he’s at his best when he does.
Murakami, too, reuses the superficial elements of his books to demonstrate whatever themes he wants. To anyone who has read more than one of them, the characteristics are obvious: unmarried men with a penchant for jazz music and spaghetti, disappearing animals, dual worlds, cats, mystery women, references to WWII and the post-modern malaise that arose in Japanese culture as a result of that war, odd fetishes and odd sexual encounters. His characters all demonstrate a similar sort of passiveness. There’s a Murakami bingo card on Google for Christ’s sake.
Where am I going with this? We live in an increasingly specialised world. The bubble of human knowledge has grown to the extent that in order to extend any field, decades of study are required, and then the average Ph.D only pushes that border outwards by an infinitesimal amount. Leon Battista Alberti, the perfect example of the Renaissance polymath, could not exist today, because fully understanding even one of the fields he understood in the 15th century now takes decades. Gone are the days when the scope of human knowledge was small enough that one person could contain it all.
So in the case of artists, wouldn’t it be a better idea for most of them to create one original image, and refine it, examine it from different angles (I don’t mean exclusively art as in painting of course, but ‘the arts’.) Take Murakami, whose explorations of post-war ennui in Japan have been mocked as repetitive and samey, and King, whose settings and characters have in smaller part suffered the same fate. If those artists are best at exploring those images – King the small American town, Murakami the fingers of history reaching forward and grasping the present, wouldn’t it be better for human culture if they continued doing it? From a purely utilitarian perspective, people should always stick with what they’re best at. As these kinds of artists aged, their work would retain the same core, or a different message based on the same theme, and the pieces they made would gradually deepen. Imagine a painting we could enter as easily as we enter a room – seeing the picture from any perspective, right from the first angle, to the view from underneath the table, to over the shoulder of the woman in the corner…
This is not to say that artists should be restricted to a single image, obviously, nor that it is impossible for artists to create profound artwork based on more than one theme or image or idea. Rather, I am merely saying, if Murakami or King want to explore the same image repeatedly, they should be encouraged – although there might be less creative art in the world, the pieces we’ll be left with will be deeper. For the record, I consider Murakami’s bibliography for the most part a single work; and since they can be read so fast they might as well be short stories, all of which explore similar ideas. I do not consider Satie’s Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes the same pieces, but I have read a few analyses of them and they could have been, if he’d made the decision to stitch them together.
It seems to be a viable career path, in this increasingly particularised, even ‘fractalised’ world – and I’m aware that’s not a word, but it should really be one – to explore the same piece from different angles. And it’s not only a viable but also a worthy and artistically significant pursuit. After all, if you’ve come up with a theme or image good enough that it can be explored from multiple perspectives, and provide a great melody or story, there’s no reason not to develop it.