I’ve been painting most nights: acrylics, layer upon layer, broadly expressionist, abstract, intimate. But one thing troubles me: what do I call the paintings? You’d think it would be simple, but the ‘naming of things’ is not to be undertaken lightly. With its immediacy a painting seems to be different to a book, or a piece of music, and not quite the same as an illustration or an artwork but the process of naming raises questions about our response to art in the broad sense of artistic endeavour. This could stray into a discussion about about elitism vs popularism, but it’s an enquiry into the codes and questions that sit behind the fact of and the consequences of ‘naming’. Inevitably, intention is the key.
Online, In print, In store
In these days of organic searches, SEO, metrics and algorithms, names have become of critical. The domain name of the website, the name of the blog, the title of the blog post, the tags, categories, the rhythms of online traffic all point to the primary significance of naming. Without a carefully targetted name, an internet search will not pluck your blog, post, product or piece of work and thrust it onto the all-important first page of a Google or a Bing search. Such names bring more traffic, but another reason for the traffic is often that a strong or evocative name brings a narrative with it, tells a story. In many forms of art, in books, music, there are differing views about the value of narrative titles, and different intentions behind the reason for a particular name.
The type of music we hear, from our mp3 players, smartphones, computers, hi-fi systems, in lifts and retail stores has never been more fragmented, but there is a clear divide in the naming that straddles all forms of music, from rap to pop, classical to jazz, musical theatre to the blues: some titles describe (event, person, emotion, such as Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance), others intrigue (Elton John’s Candle in the Wind), but generally the chart songs, pop, rock and country-flavoured, tend to hang the name onto the hook of a chorus, and rely on repetition for a powerful phrase to name the song, so it must be catchy, or obvious, or memorable in some way (Paul Simon’s Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover). In the modern era, the name of the piece of music is designed almost exclusively to bring an emotional resonance, with specific reference to people, places and feelings, with which the target audience is intended to identify. It offers a direct simplicity, telling the listener what they should hear, how they should respond.
As you’d expect, Classical music is a little more nuanced. Although choral music and chanson offer breadth to the musical palette it’s instrumental music that dominates and such music tends to be described and numbered: Mahler’s Symphony No 4, Mozart’s Sonato for Two Pianos in D major, Bach’s Cantata 51. These were catalogue entries by professional musicians who created hundreds of works of art but whose music was listened to by audiences who appreciated the body of the work, using the names only to identify one piece against another. The key of the work was often noted because that also gave the knowledgeable audience a clue to the mood and substance of the music: a work in C major offered simplicity and innocence, F sharp minor was gloomy; A major, joyful and organic.
However, although classical music’s roots are embedded in medieval devotional rituals when they moved intoto the living rooms of the rich and musically literate elite of the 1700s, classical and romantic composers, their lighter sonatas flirted with seductive names that suggested moods and hinted at other, emotional resonances. (Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Debussey’s Claire de La Lune). Naming became more complicated, less dry, less elite and more accessible to those who responded to a good melody.
Naming in literature is fairly straightforward, and certainly no indicator of quality or popularism. Shakespeare, whose language transcends description with its sophisticated ease and facility, used the character names of his protagonists for his most popular plays: Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear. Perhaps it’s the sign of a confident writer who knew his audience. In Elizabethan times the theatre was the primary entertainment and Shakespeare could be trusted to deliver an enthralling night out, with strong central characters, so a resonance of expecation, at least, was carried even with the simplest of titles.
Powerful and popular genre fiction, such as Frank Herbert’s Dune series, or Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe, George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones all resort to the direct appeal of a descriptive title; we know what the words mean, we understand the genre within which the author writes and we infer meaning attached to the simplest of titles because we think we understand the intentions of the author.
Of course, for every Harry Potter we have an Unbearable Lightness of Being where Kundera’s lightness of touch is aided by the intrigue of the name for his work, and the challenge of the new that it brought on first publication in 1984. The capacity to manipulate subtly still exists, even in the most mass market of literary phenomena: soft-porn masquerading as literature. The 2012 publishing sensation that was Fifty Shades of Grey offered a suitably oblique name, that played with the potential reader’s coy interest. Of course, once the nature of the text had been outed then the name became irrelevant.
Before we leave literature we should touch on poetry. I wince when a poet reads their own work live on the TV or radio. Somehow poetry is too private, too personal to be exhumed in this way. A reading, particularly by the creator (with the exception of scintilating performance poets like Benjamin Zephaniah) can obscure the intention of the verse with unintended inflection; even the sound of the voice is disruptive. Because of their short form, the title of a poem is particulalry powerful and is an intrinsic part of the action of the language on the page, working with or against the body of the poem. Poetry is a condensed form, creating worlds in a few short lines; but if the verse creates the worlds, then the name, the title creates universes of meaning: T. S. Eliot’s journey from a youthful ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’,through the confident middle period ‘Wasteland’, to the destination of ‘The Four Quartets’ offer a journey from simple character description, through mood reflection to, finally, the neutrality of a form or record, gravid with musical inference. Eliot’s private journey is shared through the arc of his writing and signposted by the transformation of titles of his poetry. The intentions manifest within the names are clear and altered with the passage of time, as his writing became more subtle.
This is a long post, so I’ve had to divide it into two. The second half covers Art and touches on the philosophy of naming…
- Here’s a terrific reading of Elliot’s Prufrock, by the Anthony Hopkins:
- Only Connect: The Naming of Things: Part Two (next post, next week)
- Posts in the ongoing Only Connect sequence begin here.
- William Blake was a writer/artist/visionary whose names and titles ranged from the obscure to the oblique! here.