Saturday, 28 August 2010

Art's Four Campfires and Literature: Part 2

[This is part two of a series of posts. I suggest you read the first.]

Another problem comes to mind when discussing literature and Art’s Four Campfires, and that is the overlap between the four.

How, after all, does truth differ from content? Is truth not just a specific kind of content? And how does beauty differ from form? Is the pursuit of beauty not just a specialization of the play with form?

These particular questions are the most obvious, but more develop when we think of literature. In his TED talk, McCloud claims that these four campfire’s apply not just to comic books, where he developed them, but in all art, and in all human endeavour (though by that point they may be in a more distilled, more elemental form). So they must apply to wordcraft. Consider, then, beauty. What is beauty in a novel? Certainly we are not thinking about line quality, compositional balance, use of hue and shade. These are elements of a page, of course, if we think of it as a visual object. But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the words we read, and what they mean. That is all, in a sense, content, the animist catchword. Of course, we also think of the sound the words imply, and this can be beautiful in and of itself. Think of the rhythm of the ballad or the alliteration of mediaeval verse. This is beauty divided from content, surely. But there are borderline cases. I red-facedly have not read it, but I hear that The Tempest is the most beautifully balanced play the Shakespeare has ever written. It is a masterpiece of the five act play, perfectly poised, unfolding at exactly the right pace. This is a Classicist value, right? But at the same time what we’re talking about is the presentation of a story. If we are using this beautiful composition to tell the story better, is this not an Animist project? When it comes to the beauty of storytelling, where is the line between Animism and Classicism? Lots of novels are not so beautiful to listen to, and they do not conjure beautiful visual images in our mind, but we still consider the plots themselves somehow beautiful in that they evoke similar emotions in us that beautiful things evoke. Tragedies, “dramas,” and certain types of romantic comedy (Pride and Prejudice) and adventure (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) in particular do this, I think. I have not found that teen comedies or other sorts of non-dramatic comedies do this, but maybe that’s just me. At any rate, this makes the line between beauty and story rather fuzzy.

And then there’s the question about content. I think the distinction is fairly clear between Twilight and Night. Twilight is—correct me if I’m wrong—pretty much all about the story. The writing isn’t great and no one claims that it is. It has no big ideas, it has little to no conformity to truth, and it doesn’t vary too much from formal conventions. It’s about glittery vampires and hunky werewolves and hormones and teen romance. Night, on the other hand, only comes by beauty accidentally. If there is beauty at all, it is to make a particular passage stand out in the sea of misery that makes up most of the book. It is about the truth, and in this case it is about as ugly as it can get. Night is after all about Holocaust concentration camps, about those who died in them and those who survived in them—and those who lived but did not survive. It is brutal, and if it doesn’t aspire to beauty or engaging characters (a pretty Animist goal) or formal experimentation, I think we can understand. It has a message, and that is why it was written. This utilitarian aspect does not in this case seem to diminish it as art (or Art, even, a problem-fraught distinction I might get into later), perhaps because we value emotional honesty in art and Night seems to have it.

But what about Harry Potter? Or The Lord of the Rings? Or The Chronicles of Narnia? Or His Dark Materials? Or A Ring of Endless Light? Or, in the realm of film, The Matrix? (When I listed the first four examples, you were thinking the books, right? Please tell me that you were.) These are all masterpieces of storytelling. Tolkien could have worked on his beauty, many would say; his writing comes off as dry and clunky. L’Engle sometimes seems to play formalist games with her line breaks, but by and large she remains pretty true to the genre. And Lewis has rarely been accused of gritty realism. But all of these examples have something that Twilight cannot boast: a clear subtext. Rowling’s heptilogy is about love, loyalty, honour, courage, and justice. If you doubt this, if you think she has written a simple romp, perhaps you would do well to read quotations from Dumbledore. Perhaps you would do well, actually, to read the books over again. You could also try asking Rowling. I am convinced she would support me on this. Tolkien’s saga (that word applies far more to Lord of the Rings than to Twilight) is about the hidden nature of evil, the different faces of courage (Frodo’s pity, Sam’s loyalty, Gimli and Legolas’ discarding of enmity, Aragorn’s rising to an unwanted destiny, and so forth), and the need for those courages in times of darkness. I suggest you read Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth for more on that. The Narniad is about the nature of God and the nature of virtue. Pullman’s trilogy is a sort of novelistic rebuttal against the Narniad, asking the same questions and giving different answers (read The Magician’s Book for a revealing interview about Pullman’s thoughts on Narnia, or read Pullman’s own essay on it, I suppose). L’Engle writes consistently about love, tolerance, and hope. And The Matrix (and its sequel but not, as far as I can tell, the third one) turns philosophy into a science-fiction action flick.

Subtext is clearly content, and in all of these examples it is embedded deeply into the story itself. But, at least in the eyes of the authors, the subtext is also clearly truth. Is this Animism or Iconoclasm? All of them would easily fit in Animism, but few of my examples would fit in Iconoclasm. To look at a different example, Big Fish, which has its “message” too close to the surface to be subtext, could not in anyone’s wildest imaginings fit into Iconoclasm. But when looked at theoretically, subtext or “deeper meaning” seems to be a more truth-related thing than a story-related thing. But what if that subtext is in a popular work of art (something Iconoclastic authors try to distance themselves from, supposedly), and what if that subtext is about hope, love, honour, and beauty? This does not jive with the Iconoclastic idea of the Ugly Truth. L’Engle’s books in particular are about pulling beautiful truth out of ugly reality.

The only solution I can offer to this question is this: the campfires, again, are not about classifying particular works of art. They are groups of values that artists hold about art. Thus we must look to the artist and ask what they value. Picking one catchword—Beauty, Form, Content, Truth—is not enough. We must think instead about the whole mess of ideals and goals they have, and try to form a picture from this. In the end, too, categorizing artists according to these campfires is not our goal. Our goal—or my goal, in thinking about these campfires—is to find direction for ourselves as artists, if we are artists, and to determine how to judge—or find—the value of a piece of art. This is what we must keep in mind, and what I will discuss in upcoming posts.


Anonymous said...

Hm yeah it a set of value certain artist have . Not sure how it would even apply to other culture with radically different history . take the example of African art ,

It was Classical design (there a tradition ) but it meaning is in relationships to the audience spectator (animist real life ) .But it value was in relationships to the whole of the community the ceremony the people the dance the music . IF you take it out of that context it meaningless . But the craftsman are highly valued .There plenty of spontaneity and individual expression as seen in most poly-rhythmic music forms that where heavily influenced by Musical traditions form West Africa . (So Classical isn't very rigidity but there is a structure there ) Also there concept of philosophy on reality are different much more fluid and abstract (The true energy of a person )

Christian H said...

I don't feel that I could answer how it would apply to other cultures, but I think you are absolutely spot on that McCloud's idea is rooted in (and probably requires) certain Western ideas of art. I really ought to have made a critique of the way he universalizes his camps; any universalizing system of art is doomed to be in error.

Anonymous said...

I would probably say it's like a Myers-Briggs Test. Rather than look at it like a multiple choice (He's an Animist and a Classicist), it's probably more like percentages (40% Animist, 30% Classicist, 10% Formalist, 20% Iconoclast). The main thing McCloud was probably trying to do was not to help an artist find his 'own style' per se but to give us a different way of looking at artists and which areas we can learn from them or help us analyse their art better. An example is that after McCloud wrote that Charles Burns was a Classicist Iconoclast, I was able to see how truly powerful his drawings were. Burns combined old horror comics etc. with a powerful inking style that breathed new light into old art yet was also able to use that to showcase the dark confusion of adolescence in his amazing Black Hole. From Burns style you can see how beauty (just look at his use of black) can still combine with the harsh truths of life and inspire art.

Anonymous said...

(Cont from last post) So the question to ask is not "What camps are these artists under?" but "How do these artists use their art to show they are artists from one camp?". It's a method of analyzing a technique and it's effect so that we can apply it to our own work.

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