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Is a Bad Story Art?

Imagine this: a young man, disaffected with life and its thousand daily stings, channels that raw emotion into a work of imagination. He dreams up a world where all the little cruelties of modern life are given a concrete form, where hope becomes a personified, unstoppable force, and where the future is a shining jewel whose mysteries, good and ill, hide behind an impenetrable veneer of red crystal. He takes these thoughts, this expression of his dreams and his very soul and puts them to paper, and out from from his quivering pen flows... something akin to the infamous Eye of Argon, often lauded as the worst piece of fantasy literature ever written.* Most people can agree that our young man’s work is terrible. But to paraphrase Kipling, it’s not very clever, but is it art?

 

What got me thinking about this, as usual, is video games. For anyone who hasn’t picked it up, I play a lot of video games, and the perennial favorite argument in the video game circle is “can video games be art?” A recent post by [info]carrie_ryan rebuts some specters of the same argument directed at YA lit, and we see this type of argument directed at all types of allegedly “genre” literature. That got me thinking about the nature of “art,” and rather than doing a bunch of high-falutin’ research on the history of art criticism, LJ seemed to be as good a place to take the discussion as any.

 

So my question is, while we sit and talk about whether the latest summer blockbuster movie or chick-lit release or first-person shooter or whatever is really good enough to be called art, does quality really have anything to do with being artistic? I’ve seen enough works I’ve really thought were amazing flop and enough things succeed, both commercially and critically, which I personally could not imagine anyone ever letting out into the market that I have come to accept the fact that taste is way subjective, and my tastes may not in any way reflect those of people at large. May not even be similar, in fact. So if quality really does matter to artistic merit, how do we judge it? And if it doesn’t, then isn’t a child’s stick figure drawing just as artistic as Picasso?

 

To my point: I think writers write for two different purposes: 1) to entertain; and 2) to achieve artistic merit. Some people write for the former, some for the latter, and probably most of us for both. But we take this idea of art very seriously. And I wonder if that isn’t a cop-out, a way of allowing ourselves to aspire to something without ever forcing us to define exactly what it is we want to be. Is it really universal appeal we’re trying to reach? Emotional resonance? Effective storytelling or innovation? If we nail down what we’re aiming for, maybe that will help us reach it. And maybe it would help us focus our criticism and not be so pretensious if we acknowledge that even a story we don’t like is a work of art.

 

Anyway, these are just my impressions. What I’d really love to hear are your thoughts on the issue. Does “art” have a meaning to you? Am I just missing the obvious, or way off base? What do you aspire to in your writing?

 

 

* I have no reason to believe that this is in any way the origin of The Eye of Argon. Its reference here is purely for demonstrative purposes.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
carrie_ryan
Jan. 7th, 2009 11:01 pm (UTC)
What do I aspire to in my writing? Really great question and one I'm not sure I've really thought about. Not to be crass, but one thing I strive for is something that will sell (to a publisher and to readers) so that I can keep writing full time. I tend to approach writing from a fairly commercial standpoint.

Other than that, I think I strive for the story. Which is interesting to think about because just the other day I was wondering what the story actually was in my recent WIP.

Actually, I think I strive for that feeling I get when the words flow. When I can sit down and the scene is in my head and it comes out perfectly. Where I don't even think - the words are just there and they're the perfect word (and not just the obvious word).

Just to make this reply insanely long... I was having a discussion with a friend the other day about what makes a book "literary." I tend to think that it's in the way it's told. Commercial books (to me) tend to be really focused on the story, and literary books on the way that story is told.

When you think about video games, you can't really have a good story without a good presentation. If you have crap graphics or terrible control mechanisms, it doesn't really matter how good the story is. So you can't really separate the story from the way it's told (and the visual of the representation). And one thing I've noticed more and more about video games is that aside from everything else, they can be amazingly beautiful.

When I think about "what is art," I always think about the book Lolita. It's one of the most amazingly written books I've ever read about one of the ugliest subject matters. I think it's the best example of how hard it is to answer the "what is art" question: is it the story/subject matter, the way it's written, both, neither?
jp_davis
Jan. 12th, 2009 12:01 pm (UTC)
It's funny, I originally tied in the idea of "literature" to the idea of art, then I decided to look up the definition of "literature," and here's what I got from dictionary.com:

"writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays."

I like that... an actual definition of literature as a genre (which it is, suck it up, snobs). I'm not convinced that many people, maybe anybody, has that definition in mind when they talk about "literary merit," however; I strongly suspect that the entire writing community uses the phrase to signify written art. Of course, it raises the question, "what do you mean by 'expression and form?' Don't all works of literature contain essential features of expression and form? Don't repetitive genre works contain "form" as an essential feature more than anything else? Anyway, I like the definition because it focuses on universality and, as you mention, the manner of storytelling, rather than throwing out some nebulous definition.
reneesweet
Jan. 8th, 2009 01:39 am (UTC)
Wow. Deep thoughts for a Wednesday. :)

I tend to associate the "yeah, but is it art?" question with a value judgment. As in, people who think ____ is art, think it's good. I've never applied the "is it art" question to writing, but I can tell you why I write: to evoke a reaction in myself and others. Preferably an emotional reaction that grabs the reader right in the center of their chest and won't let go until long after the last page has been turned. Those are my favorite stories to read - the ones that leave me lingering in their worlds for one reason or another and stir up my emotions. This is what I equate with "good".

I'm not sure it works to say that stories meeting my criteria for "good" are "art" and others are not. But that's the fascinating thing about art - it's so subjective. I've stared at paintings that hang in museums that I'm quite certain I could recreate with almost no effort. They don't appeal to me and don't even demonstrate very much skill as far as I'm concerned. And yet, standing next to me is someone who is just as enthralled with it as I am unimpressed. I think that aspect of art translates pretty well to writing--the whole beauty is in the eye of the beholder thing (to a certain extent).

Sorry this is so long and rambling. It's been a very long day. :) Thanks for the thought provoking post!
jp_davis
Jan. 15th, 2009 12:54 pm (UTC)
I do think the general "is it art?" question is a value judgment of exactly the type you describe, but I always feel as though it's leveled as though there were some objective standard or characteristic that will render it "art," and that one can dismissively chide most creative endeavors, and even entire categories of creative endeavor, as being unable to attain that level of quality and therefore not worth out attention. That's what I don't like-- the idea that "art" is an objective measure of worth as opposed to a nebulous word whose definition is so large it may well be useless.

I totally agree with your goals in fiction-writing; evoking emotion in the reader is awesome, and it's what I inspire to as well. And I think that's a way better aspiration than just saying we want to make "art."
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )