“The spirit and the letter” is a phrase often used to talk about laws and company policies. What is written is supposed to give not just black and white rules for which to follow, but also outline a methodology, or lifestyle which is implicit in the text. It’s like looking at the 10 commandments and saying, “These are ten rules that we must live by [the letter], but really you should just be good to people [the spirit].”
While laws and policies put more of the emphasis on the letter, art puts more of the emphasis on the spirit. Art is all about the expression and communication of ideas and thoughts in a free-flowing kind of way. Art cannot, and should not be measured or tied down, and art is far from black and white in terms of interpretation.
Art is the embodiment of the spirit, but it is communicated through a means of tangible visual elements, which once commited to their medium, become the letter.
Which brings me to why I’m actually writing this down. It’s easy to copy the lines and shapes of a masterpiece (most art students are told to learn by doing so), but not easy at all to capture the spirit of a masterpiece. The other day, I came across an attempt by the city of Beloit Wisconsin to replicate Seurat’s masterpiece “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” I have to say that they did a very impressive job of getting the visual elements in place, even the dog in the foreground. But to me, this replication fails to take into account the spirit of the work. Seurat was taking aim at proving a point about his technique (pointillism) while capturing on am impressive scale (81 x 120 in) the busy life of modern day Parisians (which was a popular theme for paintings at the time). This was not an easy feat for Seurat as it took him nearly two years to complete the painting.
Maybe I’m a little disappointed because this is one of my favorite paintings and I hold my own interpretation of the painting. Maybe I’m a little disappointed because the work displayed is not a final version and will be modified to better capture Seurat’s pointillism.
Either way, this is just my opinion and you can’t take away the fact that they did a really good job of copying the letter of Seurat’s masterpiece.