Friday 18 April 2014

The Importance of Narrative

When I compiled my five art posts into a single sequence, I said that I wouldn't post too much about art anymore. But lately I've been thinking about stuff that I didn't include or explicitly say in those five posts. In times where I'm not posting much because I don't have much to say, I may throw in a post like this that covers a random art-related idea. I have a lot of little thoughts like this one and very few of them are widely accepted among art-type people. Perhaps delusionally, I believe my ideas are unpopular because the people that usually think about these issues don't have a clue what they're talking about.

This post is about "narrative art." In case that term isn't clear, I'm referring to works that have some kind of temporal element, even if they are experimental, non-linear, or lacking a plot. Since I'm a movie person, I'm thinking specifically about movies - and by "non-narrative art," I'm referring to things like paintings, sculptures, vases, and found object art. The distinction can also be described as the difference between things that just sit there and things that unfold over time.

As explained previously, I believe that the most sensible way to "objectively" evaluate art is to check what it contributes to the world. Now I'd guess that just about all art contributes to world in various ways (entertaining people, getting them to question their beliefs, fostering creativity, the therapeutic quality of creating or experiencing art, decorating and branding buildings and people, etc.). It would be difficult to find an example of a work of art for which no argument could be made for its existence. But are some kinds of art more impactful than others?

It's very clear to me that an artist seeking to have the largest possible positive impact on the world would create narrative art. Narrative fiction undeniably possesses the ability to influence the attitudes, beliefs, and values of audiences. The artist's expressed views can change audience minds about moral, political, philosophical, and more casual issues. They can plant new beliefs, whether true or false, in their heads. With this kind of art, the ideas expressed by the artist matter because they say things and imply things that significant numbers of people will actually be able to decode and possibly be persuaded by. Films can reinforce political and gender norms. Novels can change your attitudes toward other sorts of cultures and people. For this reason, we need to care about what ideas the work expresses.

For non-narrative art, these questions barely matter. It doesn't even make sense to have discussions about the philosophy the work expresses or whether it has any substance or not. Whether the vase in my house is embedded with Marxist or capitalist values will have little to no effect on the world. What matters more to me are common sense considerations such as what the piece looks like, how it will match the other things in my house, and what other people will think of me when they see it in my living room. The unpopular but (in my opinion) undeniable explanation for this is that those works that just sit there don't really matter like narrative works matter. They have little to no consequences on the world that couldn't also be ascribed to the chair you're currently sitting on. Their qualities and meanings simply don't affect or influence people that view them - and if your impact is extremely low, it hardly matters how positive or negative that effect is.

Obvious exceptions to this are commercial photography and graphic design and viral online content like memes and graphics. This work is specifically geared for changing widespread attitudes toward a brand, product, or social issue. It's that attempt and ability to affect the world that is really essential here, not the narrative aspect. Unfortunately, the dominant paradigm in the fine arts does not revolve around making the world better. A strange consequence of this view is that commercial photography is in a way more noble than art photography (if we judge by outcomes and not intentions).

The main lesson to learn from this is that we should be having different conversations about different kinds of art. For works whose greatest potential to affect the world comes from their embedded meanings, we should be talking about their embedded meanings. For works whose greatest potential to affect the world comes from aesthetic responses, we should be talking about their aesthetics. Therefore you cannot make a claim like, "Postmodernist art is all style over substance therefore it's all worthless" because "style over substance" is a legitimate criticism of movies and literature, yet pretty irrelevant when it comes to paintings and jewelry.

Part of the reason for the higher importance of narrative art is the fact that narrative art dominates our culture. Movies, books, and music reach much wider audiences, receive higher funding, and get covered more in popular culture than do fine arts like sculpture and painting. Even if there's nothing inherently better about cinema than sculpture, our culture definitely offers more opportunities for filmmakers to make a difference. And if you aren't trying to make a difference, then what are you doing?

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