Saturday, 21 August 2010

Art’s Four Campfires and Literature: Part I

I posted a while ago about Scott McCloud’s theory about the four campfires of art. I suggest that you read this post, but in case you do not want to, I will give you a synopsis...

Scott McCloud claims that artists fall into four clusters based on the sorts of values they have regarding their art. The Classicists value beauty and mastery of form. The Animists value the content, often understood to be the story. The Formalists value experimenting with the form or medium they are working in. If a Formalist is a comic book artist, then she will try to push the limits of what a comic can do. An Iconoclast values truth, often perceived as “ugly” and “raw.” Their catchphrases are Beauty for the Classicists, Content for the Animists, Form for the Formalists, and Truth for the Iconoclasts. They can be understood as being arranged in a square, with Classicists and Animists along the top under “Tradition” and Formalists and Iconoclasts along bottom under “Revolution”; the Classicists and Formalists are along the right, under “Art,” while the Animists are along the left, under “Life.” McCloud emphasizes that this is not cut and dry; artists often move from one campfire to another, but usually they favour one or two and spend little time at the others.

I have some problems with this breakdown, and I think some of these problems come out when you apply this idea to a medium other than comics. Thus I will use it to look at a medium I am more familiar with—literature—and at the same time use literature to look at this process.
Let’s begin by stating that different literary traditions do correspond somewhat to these groups, but not in any systematic or perfect way. The Romantics, for instance, attach nicely to the Iconoclast view; while many of them spoke a fair amount about beauty, their choices often belie a greater interest in reality, at least as they saw it. Wordsworth’s insistance on casting commoners as his protagonists, Shelley’s political ranting, and Byron’s licentiousness all indicating an interest in breaking conventions to describe the word “as it really is.” While the development of enjambment as a serious technique may be a formalist idea, it is most likely in service of their idea of “natural speech”; that is, the Romantics thought that poetry should adhere as much as possible to people’s actual speech patterns. While they failed miserably at this, such tricks as enjambment and internal revision give something of an illusion of “real” speech. Further, De Quincey’s obsessions with addiction and murder, and Coleridge’s similarly morbid themes, suggest that these authors understood the truth to be an ugly thing, and art to be a method of examining it.

On the other hand, though, the Romantic love of beauty appears to be diametrically opposite to their Iconoclastic bent. De Quincey spoke of the aesthetic pleasure of addiction and murder, and as much as addiction and murder are Iconoclastic topics (at last, as De Quincey dealt with them), aesthetics is a Classicist philosophy. Coleridge may have been morbid, but he also wrote some beautiful poetry. Byron’s rhyming has a strong Formalist play to it, and while Blake is perhaps not always inclined to writing beautiful things (if you disagree, skim through The Marriage of Heaven and Hell again), he could also be seen as a bit of a Formalist and does sometimes produce something lastingly beautiful ("Tyger, Tyger"). But perhaps the most ambiguous of all is Keats, who, after all, said that Beauty is Truth and Truth is Beauty. "Ode to a Nightingale" seems almost a treatise on reconciling the Classicist and Iconoclastic values.

Part of the trouble is that it is almost impossible to figure out what a poet’s values were in writing a poem, play, novel, or what have you. We have clues, yes, but if you listen to enough people talk about Shakespeare you get the sense that he was firmly rooted in all four camps. Shakespeare’s poetry is often very beautiful, and in some of his later plays he displays a clear mastery of form, making him a Classicist idol. This being said, his wordplay, his gender- and genre-bending, and his meta-theatrical games, such as those opening Julius Caesar and ending As You Like It, indicate his status as a Formalist. If my Renaissance professor is to be listened to, Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet staged a sonnet. That is, he took conventional sonnets with their Petrarchan conceits about living death, loving hate, virtuous villains, exile, and melodramatic claims that the lover will die without the beloved, and made them literal upon putting them together in a play. If this was indeed Shakespeare’s intention—and, as far as you can have evidence for such a claim, I think the evidence supports it—then he is quite the Formalist indeed. But Shakespeare also told powerful stories, and much of the appeal of such plays as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is their strength of pure storytelling. They are gripping, tragic, hilarious, or otherworldly; that is, they are moving. This is a Classicist goal. But finally, if Stephen Greenblatt is right, Shakespeare has kept an allegiance to his working class roots: in many of his plays, he shows us the tension between the oppressor and the oppressed. The institution of marriage and the role of women is displayed in a rather unflattering light in The Taming of the Shrew; the plight of the poor is apparent throughout 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV (as Greenblatt argued for the scene where Falstaff conscripts people) and at the beginning of Julius Caesar; and, of course, the bitter truth about gang violence is on stage in Romeo and Juliet. He is an Iconoclastic poet, surely...right?

We have three options, then. The first is to continue arguing for one or two campfires, claiming that while the other two come through from time to time they are in the end little more than garnishes on Shakespeare’s central concern (whatever we happen to decide it is). The second is to say that Shakespeare is one of those rare poets that in fact does draw substantially from all four campfires. It is this that makes him a worthy candidate for his position as The Bard, that one poet who defines all poets in his language. (The Romantics would then also be interesting, maybe, as a movement that managed to yoke Classicism with Iconoclasm, a difficult feat.) The third option is to say that the discussion is futile and invoke the Intentional Fallacy.

I think that this last is maybe the best course; we do have hints as to what values different poets had, of course. The Romantics, again, left a lot of writing about poetry itself, which makes it easier to gauge what their values were. So too did people like C S Lewis, Umberto Eco, T S Eliot, and Sir Philip Sidney. At the very least we can say what sort of campfire their writing about poetry fits into and see whether their poetry (or fiction) reflects these values. But Shakespeare left no writing about his poetic philosophy. The poetic philosophies of his characters don’t really count, either; it is increasingly dubious that Shakespeare believes that art holds a mirror up to nature, as his character Hamlet says. Hamlet is not Shakespeare, and we can tell pretty much from the outset that Hamlet is not a mouthpiece for his author. Thus we are guessing based on the effect the work has on us what Shakespeare’s values in writing it are, and that’s not a very reliable method at all. What we get out of it may very well be different from what Shakespeare wanted to put in. That is, it’s more than possible that Shakespeare was interested solely in beauty and story alone, and played formalist games and spouted iconoclastic ideas in service of those other two values. We will never know.

So this is something we learn. Applying these campfires to works of art is dangerous. What we can apply them to is artists themselves, if we know enough about the artist. This is obviously what McCloud intended from the outset (if you will allow me to discuss his intentions). These campfires are to reconcile the different values of different artists, not to categorize artwork itself. While categorizing an artist’s work may help identify the campfires he draws meaning from, talking to an artist about art is also an important part of that process.

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