Stephen King has hypothesized that his readers do not return to him for action but rather for a voice.
Artists, whether musical, visual or literary, function like a font that surfaces from underground streams of individualized and undiluted ideas. The clearest examples of these distinct voices also happen to be the easiest to name: Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, Shakespeare, Richard Wagner, Bob Dylan, Jane Austen and Langston Hughes.
Despite some great artists focused solely only one type of artistic expression, others have expanded their voices into other mediums to present more comprehensive works that speak to the eyes, the ears and the psyche.
In 1849, Richard Wagner popularized a German aesthetic term called “Gesamtkunstwerk,” which translates to “total work of art” or “comprehensive artwork.” The phrase looked to blur the lines between different mediums and artistic tasks into one conceptual statement made up of all its parts.
The idea continues to float underneath the brim of pop culture with Jack-of-all-tradesmen like Phil Spector, Bob Dylan, who paired his music with his paintings, and David Bowie, whose final work Blackstar included an off-Broadway play titled “Lazarus” after one of the album’s songs. In every way, Bowie’s last release followed the carte blanche, combinative tradition Wagner pioneered in his operas.
In the present age of digital storage, more and more artists have released visual compositions about the creation of their albums or as a companion piece, such as artists like Nothing, MGMT and recently Flying Lotus. Musicians are no longer one-dimensional in their expression, and technology has facilitated their access to honing and mastering mediums other than their primary one.
Perhaps the two releases that have most mirrored Wagner’s method are Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Both 2016 albums arrived with visual stories interlinked with the music rather than added as an extra feature. At the same time, Ocean also published a magazine called “Boys Don’t Cry” featuring an explanatory project details and a silly, witty poem by Kanye West.
Regardless of the quality of the albums, their use of mixed media, including print, is unprecedented in their professionalism and personally-crafted sheen. But full-length album films are not the only way to expand on an album’s meaning. Artists include things in releases that are often overlooked.
On my wall hangs a poster that came with the vinyl for Archy Marshall’s moody hip-hop album A New Place 2 Drown. Although the poster is only made up of different patterns of black and white lines and the album’s name, it provides another object to contemplate the deeper feelings behind abstract sounds. It gives the album a visual backdrop.
Prior to dropping the group’s ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead sent cryptic postcards to its mailing list complete with appropriately-paranoid lyrics and a painting related to the album.
A gesture as simple as a poster or postcard that differs from the album’s mandatory cover artwork can give listeners a better idea of which stream of human emotion the artist filled his or her canteen.
An artistic concept should not be confined to one area of expertise but rather allowed to flourish in many different forms. Artists are moving forward in releasing more comprehensive works from the viewpoint of music rather than the traditional mixed medium of film.
And as long as the voice remains strong and present throughout the work, the listeners, readers and viewers will always return for more. And more and more, those three separate labels of consumption apply to one person engaged with one work of art.