A sculptor seeks the center point
I was so occupied setting up ``Venetian Balance'' in the central rotunda of a college library that I was unaware of being watched. An extra pair of hands would have helped as I sought to hold the awkwardly oscillating sculpture in an upright position. After moments of near-calamity in what must have seemed a vain struggle, the final weighted element settled in place. There were a few progressively less violent movements and the whole sculpture swung into graceful equilibrium. A spontaneous ``Ohhh!'' pulsed through the study rooms facing onto the rotunda. Students' faces returned my surprised gaze briefly, we smiled self-consciously, and they bowed back to their books.
To combine both mechanical structure and balanced motion in an aesthetic form of sculpture is difficult. Gravity, usually man's friend, becomes a wily antagonist. The apparently free-floating forms require compensating weight below the points of balance to maintain stability. There may be no convenient structure where such weight is essential. The weight element may look bad and the additional structure to hang it on compounds the fault.
That a moving form can achieve balance is immensely pleasing. That a sculpture, a dancer, an athlete, can maintain equilibrium echoes a pleasure in us as intimate as upwelling laughter, a sob, the holding of one's breath to the end of a perfectly executed performance. The very nature of balance is that it requires precision, an exact center point, there is no ``almost.'' Balance excites response; we feel its lack as a sense of unease. This lack may not be readily evident to the eye, but we know somethin g is wrong, out of plumb. We sense that something is liable to topple over.
A sculptor who uses this principle of balanced motion incurs a debt to Alexander Calder, an American sculptor who enlarged the meaning of the word mobile from adjective to noun. Calder's famous mobiles are an example of one man's exploration -- in a sense, discovery -- of a new frontier in art: that of balanced motion. The close identification of Calder's name with the general principle of balanced motion provides us with an illustration of style.
Style is what distinguishes one from the many, and it eventually describes a branch of creative art. To the artist success in his own eyes and in the eyes of history is achieved through a distinct style -- a form of identity. It's difficult to excel an innovator. There is great risk of being called merely an imitator. For this reason many young sculptors, in their search for artistic identity, avoid balanced sculpture.
Balanced motion is a general physical principle. It doesn't belong to Alexander Calder. But in the world of sensation and ideas the names of men identify territory, they chart boundaries. Many ideas, sounds, procedures that on the surface seem open to common use are forbidden to one in quest of individual style. Territoriality exists even in the world of sensation and abstract ideas. Some of these areas are well known as theories such as those of Einstein, Newton, Pythagoras. To stray into their territo ry by accident or intent risks comparison or the brand of imitation.
I was startled by a graphic illustration of this recently. The host of our local classical music station commented disparagingly that the piece he was about to play, the ``Warsaw Concerto,'' by Richard Addinsell, was in the style of the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Perhaps he didn't intend the scorn that his words implied. (In fact, his program notes merely repeated a phrase from Grove's Dictionary of Music.)
From the jukeboxes of the early '40s, the ``Warsaw Concerto'' spoke to soft adolescent sensibilities, though it had no words like the popular moon-in-June hits of that era. It was unusual to have classical music in the jukebox. Crashing chords conveyed a message through haunting romantic melody. It was fantastically passionate music, three movements of a piano concerto compressed in a single disc. Its popularity spanned the age gap and remains with us now. At the time it served for some of us as a tanta lizing middle ground to the dawning sophistication of classical music.
Besides the ``Warsaw Concerto,'' which he composed for the film ``Dangerous Moonlight,'' Mr. Addinsell, an English composer, wrote musical accompaniment for many other films. But his composition of the ``Concerto'' illustrates a precise conflict with style or its lack. Without doubt Mr. Addinsell had trespassed on Rachmaninoff's territory. In all probability he was simply a good musician in need of theme music for a film.
Personal style has two time frames. In the present it is the life style, characterized by rapid change, the fad that passes. It is today's superstars. It is the popular culture of our children's times. The other aspect of style is our legacy of innovative achievement -- discoveries that enlarged and describe our map of human knowledge. It is charted with the place-names of men of genius and good fortune. We call it civilization.
Robert Frost's poem ``The Road Not Taken'' strikes a common chord, resistance to imitation, relying on one's own feelings, one's own style. Style is the balance point between the self of imitation and the unique emerging self. Where do we put the weight? Payment must be made for shining in another's flame. If we can resist the applause that successful imitation readily provokes, there is hope of achieving equilibrium.