Getty Center, Codera23, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I returned today from my first post-pandemic visit to the Getty Center in Los Angeles. I enjoy visiting museums, but I always wish the visits were more productive. This post represents the fruits of that impulse.

My trade is applied linguistics, so I considered what insights can be gleaned from the world of art by applying linguistic inquiry. Identifying lines of inquiry that intersect seemingly unrelated disciplines often yields interesting results.

A painted spandrel in Holy Trinity Church, Fulnek, Czech Republic by Radim Scholaster, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Yo-Yo Ma penned an essay titled “Necessary Edges: Arts, Empathy, and Education” (2010) on the topic of disciplinary convergence. Ma explains what he calls an “edge effect,” which he bases on an analogy with evolutionary biology. This idea inspired the title of this post. He likens the ideas that spring from points of intersect between the sciences and the arts to the forms of life that evolve on the perimeter where two ecosystems meet.

One of the most significant examples of the phenomenon can be found in a seminal paper from evolutionary biology titled “The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme” (1979) in which the evolutionary biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin introduced the concept of spandrels to the world of evolutionary biology.

In architecture, a spandrel refers to an interstitial space that emerges of necessity at the top of an arch or dome. Their significance derives from the creative use artists have made in their decoration.

“Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime,” by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon about 1805-1806. Oil on canvas.

Gould and Lewontin suggested that emergent properties of other selected mutations could account for some instances of adaptation. Researchers have speculated that both language and music might be spandrels that emerged as a consequence of other adaptations.

With this in mind I did some sleuthing to find some “edge effects” for my field of applied linguistics with that of the visual arts and found an interesting article by Giorgio Buccellati (2015) titled “Tensional Factors and Compositional Analysis. Crossovers between Linguistics and Art Criticism.”

Buccellati (2015), who teaches archaeology at UCLA, writes that artistic schema, such as Expressionism, Impressionism, or Naturalism, prepare the viewer for the parameters in which the tensions of the work will operate.

This brought to mind a meta-signal identified in the field of conversation analysis called a “pre-pre” (short for “preliminary to preliminary”) based on a paper by Emanual A. Schegloff in the journal Sociological Inquiry (1980) titled “Preliminaries to Preliminaries: ‘Can I Ask You a Question?’(as cited in Roever, 2021).

Mercy: David Spareth Saul’s Life (1854) by Richard Dadd (1817-1886). Oil on canvas.

According to Schegloff, speakers use pre-pres to prepare an interlocutor for the type of content they should expect in a conversation. Examples of pre-pres include, “Guess what?” “Can I ask you a favor?” or “You’ll never believe who I saw today.” In each of these examples, the speaker does not expect his interlocutor to answer the question (or even want him to). In that sense, pre-pres serve rhetorical purposes.

In this sense, Buccellati seems to indicate that genre schema in art function in a similar fashion to Schegloff’s pre-pres in conversation — an internal preview for what’s to come.

In his article, “Necessary Edges,” Yo-Yo Ma gives as example the evolution of the Sarabande, from a vulgar north African dance to a movement in the dance suites of the father of Western music — Johann Sebastian Bach. You can listen to Ma perform the work below:

Featured Image: Penelope Unraveling Her Web (1783-1784) by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797). Oil on canvas.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope was beset by suitors while awaiting the return of her husband, Odysseus from the Trojan War. Promising to marry one of them after she completed a tapestry, she remained faithful to her husband by unraveling her work each night. In the foreground, a statue evokes Odysseus’s presence.

Pottery designer and entrepreneur Josiah Wedgewood (1730-1795), one of the artist’s most important patrons, commissioned this painting as a tribute to the virtues of industry.

Quoted from the exhibit label at the Getty Center, Los Angeles, CA. Saturday, December 31st, 2022.

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