This is part one of a three part series of articles written for people who love music but do not understand abstract art.
All three articles reference highly-acclaimed works of music and visual art that have stood the test of time. The articles use these well-known works to help explain how musicians and painters use abstractions to add value and meaning to their work.
Depending on your interest level, you can read one, two, or all three of these articles. All of them are about essentially the same thing, but each can stand on its own, so you can read them in any sequence you desire.
Spoiler alert: the secret is, when the meaning in a work of art is not immediately obvious, we are free to add our own meaning to it.
Sound complicated? It isn’t! All it takes is a little imagination.
Exercising Your Imagination
Look at Kandinsky’s painting of The Blue Rider (1903) above and imagine:
- A wildcat growling — in the distance
- Two riders — instead of just the one
- And they’re approaching — not riding off to the side
- The sound of the wind — beginning to howl
Easy enough, right? Ok, now we’re ready!
All Along the Watchtower
The song All Along the Watchtower, written by Bob Dylan but covered most famously by Jimi Hendrix, is a great example of a song with lyrics that are a bit vague. Surely all music lovers love this song!
Based on the number of versions there are, it’s obvious that many musicians love it as well.
In addition to Bob’s and two versions by Jimi — in the studio and at Woodstock — there are versions by
- Dave Matthews,
- Neil Young,
- Eddie Vedder,
- John Mayer,
- Pearl Jam and Neil Young,
- Eric Clapton and Lenny Kravitz,
- Dave Mason,
- Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemmons and Neil Young, and even
- Bryan Ferry!
The Joker and the Thief
Why do so many love this song?
“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth”
— Bob Dylan, All Along the Watchtower — verse 1
For one thing, there’s the music. There are only three chords so it’s easy to learn and jam to. That certainly contributes to its appeal to musicians.
Blues songs also have only three chords, but this is no easy-going blues song.
The driving progression of the chords give those who hear it an undeniable feeling of impending doom.
Keep Calm and Trust Your Fate
Although the lyrics are a bit vague, they confirm that the shit is about to hit the fan!
“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late”
— Bob Dylan, All Along the Watchtower — verse 2
Ostensibly a conversation between a joker and a thief, the first two verses remain confusing, even after decades of consideration. The only thing certain here is that the time stealing and kidding around is over.
The third and last verse finally reveal a specific threat!
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl
— Bob Dylan, All Along the Watchtower — verse 3
BOOM. No more stealing, no more jokes. No more joker, no more thief. And if anything, the vague threat is even more vague now. Surely it is something far worse than a couple of riders? Oh-kay.
The scene is a bit more complete, but precisely when this is happening remains unclear. Also, how are all these people going to fit in a typical watchtower?
How can a story so vague — so abstract, and even contradictory — also be so widely recognized as one of the greatest songs of all time?
It’s BYO Meaning Art!
If you can love this song — which requires a bit of filling in the blanks — then you can love modern art. Because whether you realize it or not, when you listen to this song, you are supplying details from — and reliving emotions felt only in — your own life.
A big part of understanding abstract art is realizing you have to Bring Your Own Meaning (BYOM).
Once they established their own style, painters like Kandinsky and Picasso — and there are many others — did not set out to create works like Rembrandt or Monet. Those works are beautiful, but they are specific, full of what Mondrian called “particular forms.”
We can all love All Along the Watchtower — because of rather than despite its vagueness — because we have all been in a situation in which doom is impending!
Visualizing the Aftermath: Goya and Picasso
What happened after the impending doom came and the shit hit the fan for the people in Dylan’s song?
Goya’s work, The Third of May, 1808, depicts a firing squad during the Peninsular War between Spain and the Napoleonic Empire. It is considered one of the first examples of modern art — even though it is obviously a representational work — because of its powerful emotional content, which at the time was unprecedented.
The Third of May offers one possible result of the song, but the weapons and uniforms limit its applicability to a specific time and place. However, the general, abstract nature of Dylan’s song defies this specificity.
Painted more than a century after Goya’s work, in response to the Spanish Civil War, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica fits in much better with the general sentiments Dylan expresses in All Along the Watchtower.
Guernica and Dylan’s song are structured similarly. Like the song, this painting is a jumble of recognizable forms. Where the song portends inevitable doom, the painting makes it obvious the doom has come!
No more jokers, thieves, princes, women, barefoot servants, or riders. Even the horses those riders were on are done for! There are certainly several howling figures in this painting. They may not be wildcats, but the feeling is undeniably the same.
Painted decades before Dylan wrote his song, Guernica’s general sense of agony along with its deliberate lack of features limiting it to a specific time or place make it easier to consider it an image of the aftermath of All Along the Watchtower.
Your vision of the aftermath of this song might be the same, vaguely similar or it might be different. Chances are, you never gave it a moment’s thought till now.
The next time you hear All Along the Watchtower, you will have some images for your mind’s eye to use to supplement the experience!
Ok, so abstractions are important in music, painting, and other art forms. So What?!?
Hello, My Name Is…
After learning about painters like Wassily Kandisky, Francisco Goya, Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian — who is my personal favorite — and many others in graduate school at VCU, I wrote a program that draws images of personalities.
Actually, over the years I have written four versions of the program, and all too frequently I get strange looks when I tell people about it. Knowing that most people love music — which by its nature is very abstract — I wrote these articles to clear away some of the mystery behind Abstract Art.
I feel the time has finally come to start actively sharing my idea of visualizing personalities — which are also by their nature very abstract — with the world at large, and am sure I will get some push-back from people who are not yet ready for the idea.
So I wrote these articles to preemptively address the criticism I will surely get from people whose backgrounds are different from mine.
The process of writing these articles was a long one — a few decades, in actual fact. I only hope you have found them enjoyable, entertaining, and enlightening!
Thank you for reading this article!