In appreciating a work of art such as a dance, a sculpture, a painting or a musical performance, the accolade “effortless” may apply, as I shall put it, to three aspects of a work, what I shall call the “medium,” the “representation,” and the “process.” The medium encompasses the relatively lower-level entities, properties, practices and relations that comprise the work. For a dance, this might be bodily movements; for a painting, this might be the array of paint. The representation is, quite simply and as the word indicates, what the work depicts or represents. For example, in John Ward’s sculpture of William Shakespeare, the statue represents the great author in a pensive, yet effortless pose; the representation is as of William Shakespeare. And the process is what goes into creating the work, as it appears in the work (rather than, say, the hours in the rehearsal room).
Perhaps a few examples will help clarify these distinctions.
The painting is of an effortless figure (the representation is of an effortless figure).
The painting looks as if the painter created it effortlessly (the process seems effortless).
The brush-strokes seem effortless (the medium is effortless).
She played a piece representing a carefree dance (a representation of effortlessness).
It sounds as if the pianist plays effortlessly (the process of playing seems effortless).
The piano sonata sounds effortless (the medium, the sound produced, is effortless).
What are the relationships between these forms of effortlessness? Can we have one without the others? Or are some sorts of effortlessness invariably connected? It seems that we can readily differentiate the representation of effortlessness from the other two forms of effortlessness. That is, we may appreciate represented effortlessness—of the sculpted torso, painted hand, or a poetic description of a stream, and so forth—without necessarily feeling either that the process of creating the representations is effortless or the medium itself is effortless. Consider Michelangelo’s David standing in a relaxed contrapposto: with his hip protruding slightly, he effortlessly bears his weight on one straight leg with the other resting, gently bent. The statue represents an effortless figure. Yet the statue might very well appear to have been effortfully created, and the shapes of the marble might not be perceived as effortless. Or consider Raphael’s Portrait of Pope Leo X with two Cardinals. The painting represents an effortless figure, yet one can reasonably see both the process and the medium as effortful. With dance, the connection is tighter, yet perhaps still possible to pull apart. A dancer performing the female lead in the ballet La Sylphide, for example, may represent an effortless winged being, who is both enormously enticing and unattainable, yet it might not seem that she is effortlessly coming up with her movements. And perhaps one even need not see the movements themselves as effortless, though I imagine that the best representations of effortless creatures in dance also evince effortless movements (i.e., effortlessness in the medium).
One can also at least sometimes identify effortless mediums without identifying effortless processes or representations. The Golden Gate Bridge may appear effortless, yet it does not appear to have been created effortlessly, nor even less does it represent something effortless; for example, it certainly doesn’t represent Grace Kelly. (Might it represent effortlessness or freedom or some other property, a property which is itself effortless? I leave this footnote to Plato aside.) A rock garden may appear effortless while also appearing to have been created with great care (perhaps because the curves suggest an effortless way of movement); and a Glenn Gould performance of Art of the Fuguemay sound effortless, but not represent effortlessness.
Again, other times the connection among these three elements may be tighter: a Chagall painting (e.g., ______) might seem to be simply thrown together, in part because of the effortless individuals it represents; good writing, as Somerset Maugham put it, may appear “a happy accident,” but in seeing a piece of poetry or prose as a happy accident, one both attributes an effortless process and feels the writing itself to be effortless (Maugham 2001: p. __). Moreover, one is more likely to experience such happy accidents in writing that represents effortless characters than in writing that portrays struggle, e.g., in T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), rather than in “The Waste Land” (1922/2005b). (Though is this merely because the authors have chosen to match their writing style to their subject matter, or does the subject matter itself affect our attributions of effortless style?) It may also be that our attribution of effortless style influences our attribution of effortlessly represented subjects. And in many, or perhaps most cases when we ascribe effortlessness to bodily movements, we understand the movements as being both effortlessly created and effortless themselves. Fred Astaire, the king of effortlessness in dance, seems not only to move effortlessly, but also to come up with his ideas about how to move, or about which steps to do, effortlessly (and this last effect may be apparent, despite his following set choreography).