Often, we think of an artwork as absolute. Picasso’s work, for example, is simply Picasso’s work — unchanged over time. We’re aware that a digital JPEG of a painting will lose all of its tangible resonance, such as its finer brushstrokes. Yet, we still consider it to be a fair representation of an essential absolute. Those with a passing interest in art may even have some peripheral sense that a long life would naturally degrade the brilliance of a piece. But, outside of the exclusive world of art criticism and appreciation, it’s rare for us to consider the ways that an individual expression can evolve.
This is especially true of mediums like music, film, video games and literature. Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon will always be exactly what it is. It’s had extensive cover versions, several remasters and significantly re-arranged live renditions, but the album itself is written in stone. Restorations, and the ghastly hand of colourisation, may whip up fresh buzz around forgotten cinema. All in all, Citizen Kane is the same movie. When I stole a copy of Idylls of the King from my local Wetherspoons, it was the exact words that Alfred, Lord Tennyson intended. However, such faithful longevity isn’t always the case. In fact, I’ve re-written this paragraph repeatedly to account for changes made to my original examples.
The Mona Lisa
The Mona Lisa, probably the most well-known artwork on the planet, is different today than its initial rendering. In large part, its modern-day appearance has been literally warped by mere accident. Some of its frames have bent it, cracking its poplar panel. More profoundly, layers of varnish have darkened the image noticeably from as early as the 16th century. Many art historians agree that the Mona Lisa‘s pale visage is the result of an “aggressive” cleaning process in 1809. There’s even evidence to show that the painting’s subject originally had eyelashes, eyebrows and other currently missing features. Otherwise, the painting has endured an acid attack and minor damage from a thrown rock.
To what extent would Leonardo da Vinci recognise his own work if he could see its current state? Of course, it would be demonstrably his toil. He’d know it was the Mona Lisa instantly, but he’d just as quickly notice its discrepancies too. Unfortunately, we have no way to know precisely how it looked when he made his final mark on the canvas. Therefore, we also have no way of knowing how unlike its original form the Mona Lisa truly is. We accept our contemporary perception as absolute.
Leonardo da Vinci once commented that art cannot be completed, only abandoned. Under that light, there was never an absolute Mona Lisa to begin with. Perhaps that makes its ongoing growth (albeit destructive in nature) endearing. The work is, somehow, still alive for its continued changes. Despite facing environmental damage, the preservation of the Mona Lisa has been exemplary. This means that the majority of other historical paintings, or documents, fare worse. Whether or not this is at all desirable, we’re not seeing what the creator saw.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner
Ridley Scott needed a quarter of a century to decide on a definitive version of Blade Runner, but that was the very intention of his Final Cut. Revised cuts of films are commonplace, but that seems to be a side-effect of studio interference. What’s interesting about Blade Runner is how many iterations it’s received, and the time it took for its director to release an absolute edition. Before entering the centuries of survival that the Mona Lisa has already put behind it, it’s a film that evolved in intriguing ways. The existence of, and production behind, its Final Cut raises questions about when a work of art becomes absolute (if, indeed, it can).
Most films have early, roughly edited versions, known as a workprint. In no way is this practice unusual, but Blade Runner‘s workprint was a deep influence on its later fumbles. In this first edit, the film ends in an identical fashion to its Final Cut counterpart. It’s an ambiguous and bittersweet conclusion, deliberately leaving many open-ended queries. When met with negative feedback from test audiences, Ridley Scott saw himself forced to re-cut with a different approach. Out of this came its 1982 theatrical cut, which tacked on a sickly-sweet happy ending. The new closing scene was in stark contrast to the moody, ambient film-making that preceded it. Similarly, expository voice-overs replaced the workprint’s slow and enigmatic tone.
Predictably, this compromised vision received a mixed reaction. It wasn’t until ten years later that Ridley Scott himself would return for another attempt. By 1992, Blade Runner had a respectable cult following. The clear endurance of the film shone through, so Scott assisted in a Director’s Cut. Here, the ending once again left things ambiguous (with no driving off into the sunset in sight) and Harrison Ford‘s imposed voice-over was gloriously absent. A new scene added an utterly fresh context to the meaning of the entire plot. Suffice to say, this cut of Blade Runner is a fundamentally different beast to its predecessor.
Fifteen years later, in 2007, Ridley Scott tackled his Final Cut. Though it has much in common with the Director’s Cut, it shows just how much blood can be drawn from stubborn stones. After making some changes to visual effects, dialogue, scene structure and more, Ridley Scott felt he’d finally achieved his goal. It took twenty-five years for the director’s absolute to emerge. From there, opinion on the differing cuts is a matter of taste.
In this case, the evolution comes from creative liberation. Ridley Scott’s re-cuts weren’t cynical. They reflect a sincere desire to refine the purity of his art. There are seven distinctly different edits of Blade Runner, with each contributing something to the DNA of the work as a whole. For some, the 1982 theatrical edition is definitive, while others favour the Final Cut. Echoing the genius of Leonardo da Vinci, this suggests that art really can’t be objectively “finished”. Though it may be true that an art’s creator inevitably abandons it, audiences don’t.
The Plays of William Shakespeare
This area of discussion is somewhat debatable. However, that makes a strange kind of sense in an article questioning absolutes. I suggest that William Shakespeare and his plays are a prime example of evolution in art. This time, the evolution is curated by the beholder. After all, Shakespeare surely considered his theatre to be absolute in its era.
Since, something has happened to the powerful tales ascribed to Britain’s beloved bard. They live on in their purest form, performed on the boards and analysed in schoolrooms around the world. This much, at least, is to be expected. Yet, William Shakespeare could never predict how malleable his works would truly prove to be. Adaptations of his plays have become almost as popular as their original incarnations.
Thanks to the evolution of language itself, a barrier renders his catalogue impenetrable to many. Through modernised filters and perspectives, anybody can again enjoy the essentials of Shakespeare’s storytelling. With that in mind, growth driven by an audience may be necessary.
The themes and beats at the heart of Romeo and Juliet are universal. Practically anyone can appreciate them. Though, in truth, it may not be that easy to comprehend them as they were first written. Updating William Shakespeare’s plays has become so widespread that we may even take it for granted. There are almost too many screen versions of Romeo and Juliet to count, and there have been just as many different renditions in other disciplines. Such reinventions have kept the key absolutes of Shakespeare, and repackaged them in accessible ways. Otherwise, would his plays not live on as nothing more than the gate-kept darlings of scholars and academics? Would Shakespeare have even wanted his words to take on a dynamic immortality in the hands of his admirers?
Though video games are not usually considered in the same train-of-thought as William Shakespeare and the Mona Lisa, they often hold as much merit. For this piece, there are almost too many examples to explore. Therefore, I’ve decided on one game in particular. In 1994, Shiny Entertainment released Earthworm Jim for the Sega Genesis (or Megadrive). It’s fondly remembered as one of the finest games of its genre, spawning numerous sequels and an animated television spin-off. Most notably for this article, it also received several disparate versions for other consoles.
Each had their own pros and cons. Its original Genesis rendition is lauded for superior audio and resolution. Its Super Nintendo (or SNES) port, however, features better graphics and more detailed backgrounds (though an entire level, “Intestinal Distress”, is missing). This had the effect of spawning a mini-console war in schoolyards, where each side would grip loyally to the advantages of their separate machines. When the Sega CD (or Mega-CD) hit the market, Earthworm Jim came out all over again — this time with extra stages, a new password system and fully re-worked audio. There was even a release for the Game Boy Advance which, interestingly, ran poorly despite the system boasting better technology than the SNES or Genesis.
It may seem clear that Sega CD’s Earthworm Jim, then, is definitive. But, nostalgia and experience play a part too. Most never owned a Sega CD, so how is the game remembered in the collective unconscious? Which version is absolute? To many, throwing in their two cents’ worth on archaic forums, its the Genesis progenitor. Likewise, you’ll find an equal number extolling the virtues of their SNES port (which still sports finer visuals than the Sega CD’s update). In the end, it seems that whatever people played is their own ultimate. Some, literally late to the game, may have no interest in the past and only know Earthworm Jim from its so-so remaster in 2009.
With seemingly no ultimate edition existing, Earthworm Jim throws the ball into our court. To each player, individual memory determines the absolute. No matter how much I read of the extra levels or better music in the Sega CD edition, I’ll always imagine the SNES port I grew up with when I hear “Earthworm Jim“. People who prefer it on the Genesis think of something else. The variations may be subtle, but they mean that its final form can only be decided by personal perception.
Galveston by Jimmy Webb
Music boasts many instances where perception informs the finality of a piece. Covers of popular songs often provide that very service, even if it’s rare for such a recording to outdo its inspiration. It’s more compelling when a songwriter is unable to settle on any one style or arrangement themselves. It suggests that songs have an absolute core, which can be satisfyingly expressed in a number of ways.
Jimmy Webb has a number of hit songs to his name. One of them, Galveston, was a huge success for Glen Campbell in 1969. Despite its popularity, bombastic instrumentation and a general skewing of its message led to Webb setting the record straight just three years after its release. On his 1972 album, Letters, Webb brought out his own spin on the song. It featured little more than an acoustic guitar and vocals. The melody became more drawn out and melancholic, suiting the tragic confusion of the lyrics’ protagonist.
On one hand you have Glen Campbell’s upbeat, catchy and accessible Galveston. On the other, Jimmy Webb’s more grounded saunter is an appropriate, though slow and introspective, match for its themes. Like Earthworm Jim, the song is at the mercy of its listeners. It’s down to us to choose. It’s a composition that, like many others, waits in limbo for the judgement of individual perception. But, so far, this case isn’t too dissimilar from that of countless covers.
In 1996, Jimmy Webb made the whole situation more murky with Ten Easy Pieces — his ninth album. Included in the track-list was, yet again, Galveston. Armed with a piano, Webb gives us a chance to hear it with another new hue. Why, if art is absolute, would such a stark revisit occur to him? With three tries at the song now on the table, I’m forced to conclude that none of its recordings are ultimate, that no recordings can ever be.
Music is as much alive, throbbing and pulsating as all art. It’s a reason why creatives tend to feel parental about their work. Expressions can grow, and take on a life beyond any control. Being precious about them is natural, but evokes a fear of change.
Art is organic. Perhaps, by locking it into absolute cages, we’re only stunting its development. The rough sands of time can erode any stone to beautiful shapes, as they have with the Mona Lisa. There’s no shame in Ridley Scott’s retrospective tidying of Blade Runner into a tighter beast. Shakespeare’s worldwide reverence will remain as long as change can grace his words with contemporary relevance. Individual experience will always win out over any intended absolute, as it does with Earthworm Jim. If prolific creatives, like Jimmy Webb, can’t find an ultimate, why should we ever look for one?
We may be surprised at where art can take us, if we allow it to live without its wings clipped. It’s not a product of exact dimensions. It’s not even the same to one as it is to another. That chaos is something we should embrace, and trust more. By ordering art into labelled pens, we’re growing trees in plant-pots.