What does Harpo Marx’s bicycle horn have to do with Richard Wagner’s epic opera “The Ring of the Nibelung”?
Everything, if you ask Daniel Albright, Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature. Albright, who studies the intellectual history of comparative arts, is currently at work on a book about the boundaries and overlaps between different artistic media. Both Marx and Wagner, he suggests, employ music as a kind of literature that can “speak” to the audience.
In “Duck Soup,” the Marx Brothers’ 1933 comedy film, Harpo Marx answers a telephone call by quacking his bicycle horn.
“We can’t hear the voice on the other end, but it seems like a satisfactory conversation held through musical means,” said Albright. “The scene teases the linguistic faculties of our brain — the sound doesn’t result in full language, but it does have linguistic features and is capable of saying something to the audience.”
Similarly, Albright said, Wagner’s use of specific musical themes for various characters in “The Ring of the Nibelung” reveals how sound can be used as narrative, to state and reinforce an idea.
“Symphonic models grew from the art of spoken rhetoric,” said Albright. “Many pieces of music, like Wagner’s, can be thought of as a precise speech that the composer uses to tell a story.”
The Marx/Wagner example might seem a stretch, but that’s precisely why Albright has chosen to include it in his project. By looking at various forms of production — from popular films to classical opera — Albright aims to demonstrate that the boundaries between “the arts,” such as music, painting, sculpture, and literature, are fluid and often irrelevant.
“I am fascinated by what determines the distinction between one artistic medium and another,” he said. “Should ‘the arts’ be considered as one, or are they many?”
Albright recognizes that he is not the first to pose the question.
“The story of the comings-together and splittings-asunder is one of the great stories in the intellectual history of the West,” he said.
According to Albright, since Aristotle’s day, scholars have attempted to identify what qualities delineate one form of art from another.
“Aristotle identified six distinct aspects of art and gave precedence to verbal art over all others,” said Albright. “In Roman times, there were nine arts parceled out neatly among nine muses: dance, music, mime, epic poetry, lyric poetry, history, comedy, tragedy, and astronomy.”
“My own view is that the arts themselves are neither one nor many, but will gladly assume the poses of unity or diversity according to the desire of the artist or the thinker,” he added.
In addition to music, Albright explores literature, sculpture, and painting to see how artists’ theories and practices reveal assumptions about the ultimate purpose of art. While discussing Michelangelo, for example, Albright explains that the Renaissance master viewed painting as a “fire” designed to transport the viewer from the material world to a spiritual realm. For the French painter and writer Maurice Denis, on the other hand, painting was simply the arrangement of colors on a plane.
Albright also evaluates how artistic media interact with one another, sometimes in cooperation and sometimes “poaching on one another’s territory.” Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian painter, provides Albright with a wealth of material for discussion because the artist viewed music and painting as interchangeable and parallel.
“Kandinsky felt that the idea of ‘vibration’ could be communicated through several mediums — not just the note A-flat, but also the richness of a green,” said Albright.
Albright hopes that his text will provide a comprehensive introduction to the study of comparative arts. More importantly, Albright said, he wants to encourage university professors and students to engage in more interdisciplinary studies.
“Universities can be crippled by their departmental characters,” he said. “Literature gets locked into English; painting gets locked into art. It’s too easy to stay in the confines of your own field. I hope this project will promote courses that can be a respite from departmentalization.”