Saturday, 28 August 2010
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.
Saturday, 21 August 2010
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.
Friday, 20 August 2010
2. I have likely attended St. Thomas' Anglican Church for the last time until Christmas. I will miss some of those folks.
In case you were wondering, there were no spiritual fireworks. About half of the people I wanted to say Goodbye and Thank-you to were there, but that's more than I anticipated. I had no brilliant realizations. Afterwards, I picked crabapples from the tree outside. They were wonderful: red, sweet, firm.
3. I went to see The Expendables and The Sorceror's Apprentice. Both were predictable but enjoyable. Maybe I will write about The Sorceror's Apprentice, and this tendency in movies to make magic scientific.
Incidentally, I need to write about my takes on the portrayal of magic in books, movies, and other media. Things people are saying, especially regarding Harry Potter, is starting to irk me.
4. I can tell from the ads alone that they are changing things in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. le sigh.
In fact I do not get all that antsy about changes in film adaptations if the changes are understandable. We will have to see.
5. I got another pile of books from a coworker who is culling her library. I don't understand it, but I like it.
6. This weekend my friend and I explored. He is new to town, see. So we went up to the oil sands and looked at the Giants of the Sand exhibit. We went to a place connected with his upcoming job. We went to the MacDonald Island Rec Centre and library (I got Persuasion out; apparently I was supposed to read it, not Sense and Sensibility). There was visiting, and walking.
7. On Sunday afternoon I gave him and his travelling companion a tour of the Park. I was already giving a tour to a coworker's family, so I thought these two could tag along. And then two families of regular visitors tagged along, too, getting a free tour. By the end they were so forward that they were getting into the buildings before my actual guests did, and stood in the more convenient locations. Again, le sigh.
And that is all for now. Please visit Jen Fullwiler, host of this fine blog carnival.
Monday, 16 August 2010
Friday, 13 August 2010
Have you heard of Bev Doolittle? I knew her first from her paintings which hid faces or animals or Native people in them. You know the sort of paintings, I'm sure, and you've likely seen a few of hers. More recently I discovered a series of nine of her paintings which seem unrelated, but if you arrange them properly and step back a bit, you see they make a white circle on a brown-green background. That white circle is an important spiritual symbol to the indigenous people in her part of the world. Following this thread, I discovered another series of paintings (two shown here). If you put all sixteen together in the correct order, they create an image of a woman's face and head.
Monday, 9 August 2010
You know how they say that the sorts of search queries your blog answers to should reflect what your blog is about? And you know how some people say that you might want to change your blog to reflect what searches bring it up? As in, if you are blogging about the ethics of different brands of diapers but somehow Google has decided to offer your site to people looking for "puppies and windmills", then you should consider blogging about puppies and windmills instead?
If that's true, I'm writing about the wrong thing entirely. In the past, I have received visits from people interested in grammar, figures of speech, Renaissance sonneteers, cookies made with ham, and pachycephalasauruses. I've been getting weird searches every since this post and this post, but before now it hasn't been bad. These days, however, the search queries that find my blog are about a very select number of topics, namely the following:
1. Dracula's brides
2. Wynona Rider's breasts
3. Naked amputees (especially Aimee Mullins)
4. Sexy black albino women
5. Sexy black albino men
6. "Siamese" twins (particularly the Hensels)
7. Sexy disfigured people
8. Combinations of the above
OK. This is a bit disturbing. I thought they invented DeviantArt so people could commission fetish pics, but, hey, what do I know? Maybe Google's the go-to place for specialty porn now? If so, do I need to start posting pictures of a naked, armless, albino Blackula with his topless conjoined twin Wynona-Rider-lookalike brides?
Or I can rely on links from other blogs and a continued presence on Mr Linky Lists. Yeah. I think I'll take this last route.
Note: I think it is clear that this particular post will make the situation much worse. Now there's a single page devoted to all of this nonsense.
Saturday, 7 August 2010
Friday, 6 August 2010
2. This past Monday was Heritage Day at work, our largest annual event. I have written about it before. It has assorted cultural food and clothing/jewelry vendors and we had many activities going on in the park, like children's games, watermelon eating contests, and the presense of Bailey Jr. People call him a buffalo, but he's really a bison. People always call bison buffaloes around here. It's even in the municipality name.
Because of this event, I had to work a lot of overtime in preparation. Due to this, I did not complete a 7 Quick Takes last week.
3. I stayed home on Wednesday because I was burnt out. It was a little miserable.
4. I have finally come to realize that I am outclassed on the Internet. Following a few atheist websites and reading the comments has forced me to acknowledge that a lot of people are keener philosophers than I am. At the very least, they are better at arguing philosophy than I am, which I do know is not the same as being a better philosopher. As far as on-line conversations go, however, the difference is negligible. This means I had better learn when to shut my trap before I make a fool of myself.
5. The design that Jeniffer Fulwiller discusses in Quick Take 5 is so cool. I want a house with features like that!
6. I have finished reading Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. It was far better than I expected. If you far prefer Bram Stoker's Dracula to Anne Rice's decadance, or the figure of Vlad Tepes enchants you more than the glamourous eternals of Twilight do, than I recommend this book. That is, if a vampire book to your mind should be about hunting the damned monsters instead of joining them, I think you'll find this enjoyable. (And, along with C S Lewis, this is not frivolous cursing; according to the legend, they are damned.)
Also, if you like subtext, if you like subtle and cunning intellectual puzzles in your books, this is also for you. You do not have to read it for anything more than a hunt for the beast, but there is a lot to think about in this book. Throughout the narrative there runs a question: in what ways can we reach into the past, and in what ways does the past reach back out to us?
Three further notes on this book: it is obsessed with historical research, which means you learn a bit about the Wallachians, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, the Bulgarians, and so forth. It also talks a lot about different languages, which I know interests some people. It also has one of the best temptation scenes I have read. Imagine the best library in the world, brimming with old and forgotten books lost to history, books answering questions you never though could be answered. Imagine these books just sitting on the shelves, needing only a hand and a set of eyes to be read. You can have unlimited access to these books... if, and only if, you pledge allegiance to the vampire. That, ladies and gentleman, is a temptation that I can feel when I read it.
Readers who loved the Beast's library in Beauty and the Beast, what do you think?
7. For his birthday, I gave my father a used collection of Robert Service's poetry. In particular he likes "The Cremation of Sam MacGee." Ballads have such strong rhythms to them, so much that I think the ballad ought to be assigned in every poetry course.
Make sure you visit this blog carnival's host, Jeniffer Fulwiller at Conversion Diary.
Thursday, 5 August 2010
Concerning This Whole Prop 8 Thing
I must say from the outset that I always thought Prop 8 (for those who don't know, Proposition 8 was a California law that banned same-sex marriage that was somehow voted in with a majority) was a horrible thing. This is not just because it was yet another blow to the equality movement, but because it indicated that a majority of California voters did not have human rights in mind when they made their decisions that day. And this is California, too; it's not quite Washington, but it's certainly not Texas, either.
In case you can't click on this to make it bigger, I will type out what this comment says:
You are smart to recognize that many of the arguements the religious use
against gays and lesbians will eventually be used against yourselves.
I will eagerly vote "yes" on any future ban on Christiany or religion should
one appear in my country/region. (Posted August 5, 2010 at 03:20 PM.)
Once again this is something I should not give headspace to, but I reeled for about five minutes when I read Brianna's comment. I was about to reply with something fierce and not pithy at all, but I restrained myself. A large part of me hoped that my fears about atheist fundamentalism were unfounded. The rational part of me was in on this hope, since it seemed reasonable that there were not any or many atheists who actively sought the oppression of religious peoples. In all of my Internet travels, I had not encountered anyone who would use political means to prevent membership in religion. Now I have. These people exist. Or, at least, one does.
I desperately wish that we could dig ourselves out of hate: Christians who hate homosexuals and non-Christians, atheists who hate Christians, anyone who hates anyone. Can all my (few) readers please do me a favour? Can you try to practice love as fervently as possible the next few days? We need it.
(Also, I intend to read more queer theology when I get to BC. I hope that in posting this here I will have greater incentive to go about locating the necessary books.)