Transmission of artistic concepts: An Example of Associational Form

The cultural project is a therapeutic melding of emotion, symbols, and knowledge. In this post, I describe how spiritual emotions engendered through encounters in imaginative culture enable fixation of metaphysical beliefs. Evolved affective systems are domesticated through the social practices of imaginative culture so as to adapt people to live in culturally defined cooperative groups. Conditioning, as well as tertiary-level cognitive capacities such as symbols and language are enlisted to bond groups through the imaginative formats of myth and participatory ritual. These cultural materializations can be shared by communities both synchronically and diachronically in works of art. Art is thus a form of self-knowledge that equips us with a motivated understanding of ourselves in the world. In the sacred state produced through the arts and in religious acts, the sense of meaning becomes noetically distinct because affect infuses the experience of immanence, and one’s memory of it, with salience. The quality imbued thereby makes humans attentive to subtle signs and broad “truths.” Saturated by emotions and the experience of alterity in the immanent encounter of imaginative culture, information made salient in the sacred experience can become the basis for belief fixation.

Bruce Conner’s film A Movie illustrates how associational form can confront us with evocative and mysterious juxtapositions, yet can at the same time create a coherent film that has an intense impact on the viewer. Conner made A Movie, his first film, in 1958. Like Léger, he worked in the visual and plastic arts and was noted for his assemblage pieces—collages built up of miscellaneous found objects. Conner took a comparable approach to filmmaking. He typically used footage from old newsreels, Hollywood movies, soft-core pornography, and the like. By working in the found-footage genre, Conner juxtaposed two shots from widely different sources. When we see the two shots together, we strive to find some connection between them. From a series of juxtapositions, our activity can create an overall emotion or concept.

A Movie uses a musical accompaniment that helps establish these emotions and ideas. As with the images, Conner chose music that already existed: three portions of Respighi’s well-known tone poem The Pines of Rome. The music is important to the film’s form since it has distinct sections. Moreover, the atmosphere of each segment is different, corresponding to the music. The beginning of what we’ll identify as segment 3, showing women carrying totems, the crash of the Hindenburg dirigible, and some daring acrobats, gains its ominous effect largely from the eerie core. Likewise, the driving music accompanying segment 4 sweeps a string of horrendous disasters into one plunging apocalyptic rush. Conner’s use of The Pines of Rome shows vividly how associational form can create both general ideas and strong emotional effects.

We can break A Movie into four large-scale segments. Each segment consists of related images, marked off from other segments by a shared expressive idea and by a distinct musical accompaniment.

  1. An introductory portion with the film’s title and director’s name and projectionists’ markings;
  2. Quick, dynamic music with images of moving animals and vehicles on land;
  3. A more mysterious, tense section stressing precariously balanced objects in air and water; and
  4. Frightening images of disaster and war interspersed with more lyrical, mysterious scenes.

In only 12 minutes, A Movie leads us through a range of emotionally charged ideas and qualities. It also creates a distinct developmental thread. In segments 2 to 4, many shots emphasize accidents or aggressive actions, and while some of these seem funny or trivial at first, they gradually accumulate and become more serious. By segment 4, a series of war scenes and natural disasters present practically an apocalyptic vision. A Movie’s tone finally eases in its closing underwater scenes.

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