HOW DAVID BOWIE KNEW THAT ART DOESN’T END AT THE EDGE OF THE CANVAS
This last week I’ve found myself, along with what seems like half the planet, absolutely devouring hours and hours of the work of David Bowie.
Now, I’m fond of some of his songs, and familiar with a fair few more, but it hasn’t been his music I’ve been consuming – it has been his Press/TV interviews, both in print online and videos on YouTube* (some of my favourites are here and here
They are absolutely staggering, almost without exception, all overflowing with ideas and references.
Those interviews – which are of course just an extension of who David Bowie was full stop – are the absolute best example of a concept I came across recently when reading Derek Sivers :-
“Art doesn’t end at the edge of the canvas”
What does this mean then? Really it’s pointing out that the effect on the viewer of say, a painting, is not determined *only* by the painting itself – but also by other, outside factors, that are beyond ‘the edge of the canvas’.
Even for something as simple as a painting hung on a wall, the scope for altering our perspective is immense.
For example, take the wall. Is it in an exclusive Gallery? In a coffee shop? In Ikea? In someone’s home? Who!? And what if the same painting has a simple label, a description supplying some supplementary information? What is the title? Who painted it? Why? Where? How? What is the background of the artist/the story this particular painting?
Change either of these elements, and though it’s the exact same painting, there is a huge effect on how it is viewed. And so, the idea goes, they are ‘part’ of the art itself.
Now if this is the effect that the world beyond ‘the edge of that canvas’ can have on something as straightforward, and as tangible as a painting hung on a wall – the potential for it permeating an entire body of work of something as abstract as song is without measure. Of all people, David Bowie understood this – and it’s hard to think of someone who has done it better.
This world beyond the canvas is in his jaw-dropping interviews certainly, but it’s also there in his attention to his fashion, his image, artwork, his geographical location, his referencing his top 100 books and in hanging out with Andy Warhol/Brian Eno/Williams Burroughs. There is so, so much more to him than ‘just’ some songs.
And because Bowie deeply and truly understood this concept – these things aren’t some hastily tacked on marketing afterthought, they have an absolute ring of truth to them, and are an equally important part of what he was about.
Bowie actively never defined him self as a rock musician, he was unashamed in saying that he used rock music purely as a medium, and in fact settled on it after looking around for others first. At the end of the 60s, the most direct route to getting an unfettered vision into people’s hearts and minds was by being on their LP turntable. This was a man who wanted to make an impact on the world, saw RocknRoll as the most effective medium to do so and acted accordingly. By the end of the 90’s he was saying if he was starting again his medium of choice would be, not Rock, but the Internet.
So it is perhaps unsurprising, that Bowie would have such a rich world beyond ‘the edge of the canvas’ – because that was in fact his starting point - it was the canvas that he added later.
Perhaps this is an obvious idea to you, but it was only after reading Derek Sivers express it in this particular way that I’ve really inwardly acknowledged its it’s huge power.
Which is really, really strange, because when I was 18, I essentially chose my undergraduate degree (Politics) hopelessly under the influence of Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards from the brilliant Welsh rock band ‘Manic Street Preachers’ and their world beyond ‘the edge of the canvas’ (which is so dense with quotes and references to Art, Literature and Politics as to be catalogued in this great little website). I suppose they were my ‘David Bowie’ in that sense - and in fact, now I come think of it, their arrival onstage at gigs is soundtracked by a Bowie track - ‘Speed Of Life’. I guess they knew too.
And so, like all the most satisfying (and simultaneously frustrating) revelations, this idea is something that, on some level, I clearly must have already known (or at least should have been acutely aware of the power of) but it’s only Derek Sivers’ quote, and now David Bowie – that have sparked a real understanding of it.
I think we all often have moments of clarity like this, no? Where perhaps you keep flitting around the edges of the same idea, and you might have a certain amount of the relevant information to hand - but it’s only when someone presents it all to you in a particular configuration that it coalesces into a much more satisfying whole and really, truly falls into place.*
I’ve certainly found that this week, spending so many hours in the virtual company of such a fierce intellect as Mr Bowie. What a guy!
[Written January 2016].