What I dislike about much modern art theory is this idea that each art form aspires and should aspire to some kind of purity, with a particular disdain for narrative in painting. This quote from Whistler came up in a discussion recently.... "Art should be independent of all claptrap — should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like." I don't believe that at all.
It just so happens that I'd been percolating on some ideas related to this, so now seems like as good a time as any to set them down.
First of all, I agree with Richard. My knowledge of the history of art theory and criticism has enormous gaps, but the issue he's describing comes up in film theory as well, fairly rapidly in the short history of film: an objection to film as filmed-theater or filmed-literature, and a demand for a purity of cinematic aesthetics.
For its appeal, this argument depends on lumping together disparate things: narrative filmmaking, and the kind of turgid filming of plays and literature which had all but disappeared by 1930. The flaw in the argument is the unstated assumption that narrative is a creature of language. If anyone making this argument actually conceded this assumption explicitly, the entire case would immediately fall apart. Narrative is obviously not a creature of language. It is the offspring of reality, which generates it, and reason, which apprehends it, by whatever means reason finds handy: language, sound, picture, smell, mathematics, what-have-you. Perhaps the relation is more heavily weighted on the side of reason; the mind will seek and find cause and effect even where none exist.
Despite the transparent absurdity of the pure-aesthetic argument, for the time being it has certainly triumphed in painting. Whistler thought he could open the floodgates but keep his moody skies and fancy wallpapers. He was wrong.
Even among the figurative painters, virtually nobody is making narrative paintings. Can you think of anyone apart from Eric Fischl and David Hockney even attempting paintings with the degree of dramaturgical sophistication which we were just now finding in Rubens?
Fischl recognizes this issue and describes its application to his Krefeld Project paintings in his new memoir, which, in case you were wondering, is very good:
Krefeld Project synthesized the storytelling devices I'd been exploring throughout my career. ... I used multiple points of view and montage to produce cinematic effects. But the paintings still had to work on their own - not only as snapshots or interrelated scenes in a larger narrative, but as intense individual dramas vividly capturing the wounds and disappointments of a troubled relationship. Though I was still manipulating color, form, and gesture to create mood, conflict, and mystery, I was drawing my inspiration from outside the cloistered art world - outside painting in particular, which had long ago abandoned the dramatic narrative - and drawing on techniques from the other arts.
- Bad Boy, p. 332, Eric Fischl and Michael Stone, 2012
Eric Fischl, Krefeld Project: Sun Room Scene 1, 2002
Compare Fischl's commentary with that of movie director Hal Hartley:
I am very affected by Bresson... Sometimes it's just an emotional clarity that I sense in his films, that I try to bring to mine when I'm writing. When I'm shooting too. Bresson cuts right past everything that's superfluous and isolates an image that says exactly what it's meant to say.
In Surviving Desire, I show Jude's hand reaching across a table to almost touch Sophie's hand. My treatment of that action struck me as Bressonian. Recognizing that the gesture itself was expressive. Nothing else was needed. ... A lot of my experience over the past four or five years as a filmmaker has been in finding out what I need and what I'm going to look at it in order to tell a story. ... I always thought that this particular shot in Surviving Desire would be done in close-up or two matching singles. I thought it was their faces that were important at that moment. But it wasn't. It was their hands and nothing else.
- from Hal Hartley: Finding the Essential, an Interview by Graham Fuller, p. xiii (introduction to the Faber and Faber edition of the screenplays of Simple Men and Trust)
Surviving Desire, dir. Hal Hartley, 1993
Let me share a little secret with you. What Hartley is describing here is a total commonplace in film aesthetics. Hartley isn't special because he thinks this way. He's special because he's very good at it and he can verbalize what he's doing. But all directors can or do grasp the basic concept.
Among painters? Absolutely fuck-all nobody. It is as if the entire contemporary field had been lobotomized, with the possible exception of Fischl and mid-career Hockney. I think probably most of the older Big painters, like Rubens, had the directorial eye for staging which we are discussing.
Although this directorial eye has fled painting, it has not fled the visual arts. It has gone where it is needed, as things will tend to do. It is alive and well in other branches of the visual arts.
This is from p. 57 of Jaime Hernandez's Chester Square, volume 13 of the compiled Love and Rockets.
As you know, Jaime's work changed my life, and is never far from my mind. I have removed the words from this passage so that you can see how it was designed to be legible on a purely visual basis. Let's read it together:
Panel 1: A shapely woman walks down the deserted sidewalk of an urban neighborhood in the dead of night.
Panel 2: An old woman has fallen asleep in her chair, lit by harsh streetlamps.
Panel 3: The old woman has awakened - a sound must have disturbed her. The young woman?
Panel 4: The old woman pulls aside some curtains, revealing the younger woman at the window. The young woman's expression conveys that she is sad. She is not situationally sad. Rather, a heavy sadness has snuck up on her, a recognition of a set of conditions which has persisted for a long time now, and which has changed her without her noticing. Suddenly aware of this sadness, she has come late at night to this house in this working-class neighborhood. Therefore, the old woman is her mother.
Panel 5: The young woman has come inside. We see that she is young and beautiful and dressed in a more cosmopolitan way than her mother. She says something - an explanation? a question? a complaint? She turns her head away from her mother, wraps her arms around herself: she is trying to comfort herself and demonstrate her self-sufficiency. She is not ready yet to admit to herself why she came here. By contrast, her peasant-like mother understands and accepts her daughter's visit in the middle of the night: she holds her hands up toward her, inviting her daughter to set aside her burdens.
Panel 6: Mother comforts daughter. For all her youth, beauty, sophistication, and accomplishment, nothing could console the daughter tonight except the embrace of her mother. The daughter returns to herself in her mother's arms. She finds peace and hope, the promise of happiness, of finding a better way to live.
Six panels. No words. Visual narrative storytelling.
Not one painter living today can stage so efficient, complex, and moving a narrative. And yet Jaime Hernandez is like Hal Hartley. He is not categorically different from the vast number of artists working in his field. He is simply very good at doing something universally understood among comic book artists.
But let's go farther. There's another field where visual narrative is urgently needed, and where it is in full flower. If you, like me, live in New York City and take the subway, you will have seen some version of the following poster for the current Tyler Perry-produced movie, Peeples:
I have once again removed the text so that we can interpret this purely visually. Let me tell you what I see, and you can see if you agree. Reading left to right, there is a father (he's got a bald head and white in his beard). He is not a mean guy, but he can be stern when the situation warrants. Right now, the situation definitely warrants. He is displeased. But there is an edge of laughter to his pursed mouth. He can hardly keep himself angry. Why?
Because he's mad at his daughter, the center figure. His daughter is obviously beautiful and talented and might make much of herself. Father and daughter have a very close, loving relationship. The father is proud of her, and doesn't want to see her screwing up. For her part, she recognizes his concern, and even acknowledges its validity, but at the same time, she is not entirely convinced to obey his recommendation. Why? Because she is coming into her own, and she is going to have to begin to make her own decisions as an independent adult woman.
Which means the guy on the right can only be her love interest. And he is a comical schmuck. In the moment portrayed here, he has once again stumbled into some kind of a situation which can only have just godawful consequences for him. He knows better, but the imp of the perverse keeps him in a state of boyish fecklessness. If he wants to keep the woman, he's going to have to grow up - because she doesn't entirely disagree with her dad's evaluation of him as a loser who is not worthy of her. She's got love for him, but he could use it up, and be back out on his ass, romantically speaking.
I haven't seen Peeples, but how far off could this analysis possibly be? It's going to be something that, if not exactly like this, is very close to it. This poster is a miracle of narrative exposition using an absolute minimum of means. Just three faces, and three expressions, and a deep understanding of how human beings construct meaning from observation.
You could argue that I'm getting a lot out of this poster because I have a higher degree of visual literacy than your average New York City subway passenger. I think this misstates it. I think everyone looking at this poster gets pretty much the same things out of it. All my visual literacy buys me is the ability to understand how I'm seeing what I see and to put those mechanisms into words. But the seeing - that's universal. That's what functional visual narrative is all about. You don't need to be a specialist to receive its meaning.
So what I'm saying is that some anonymous poster designer drawing a paycheck from the marketing department at Lionsgate did a better job of achieving narrative complexity in the category of the still picture than every single fine art painter currently active.
And yet, it would be fair to argue that this is not the most awe-inspiring formal composition in the world. Three faces, bam bam bam. Let us turn our attention to last year's This is 40:
Complex deep space, jarringly narrow vertical elements, coordination of color and value, subtle balance underlying superficially unbalanced pictorial objects, organic canted distribution of items in order to achieve a feeling of naturalness. This is not a great composition, but its designer understands and makes use of all of the tools of great composition.
The scene: the bathroom of a hip but professional upper-middle-class couple. Their hipness is clear from her ponytail and his shaggy hair, their gym-toned bodies, and the casual presence of the iPad. Their professionalism is manifested in the stripped-down bathroom decor, the muted clothes, the finicky hygiene implied by the rituals of extended tooth-brushing and face-washing. And the class is made clear by the new, faux-antique fixtures in a bathroom with a separate sub-room for the toilet.
The characters: husband and wife, married long enough to have progressed from mutual discovery, to domestic comfort, to creeping ennui.
The action: oblivious to how he might be coming across, the husband, sitting on the pot, casually addresses his wife about something he thought of in response to an article on his iPad. The wife looks up and has a moment of clarity. How did this become her life? Where's the romance, or, failing romance, the simple decorum? Suddenly, years of small annoyances have abruptly overwhelmed her defences, and an interior avalanche is starting - this very minute, it's starting - she is about to hit the ceiling and her life has got to change.
All that from a simple poster. Compositional sophistication, socioeconomic context, character, emotions, events, transformations.
This, folks, is a great movie poster. And not only is it a great movie poster, it's a great example of visual narrative storytelling. We painters have completely lost our ability to stage anything even remotely as advanced as this. Movie poster designers do it every day of the week. Why? Because it's their job to sell movies. They've got one instant to tell you whether you want to see this movie, and they had better produce an image both clear and appealing to do the job. Visual narrative has gone where it is needed, and there are few needs deeper than selling product.
Why can't painters do this anymore? That is a different, and longer, essay. There are many reasons I can see, so I'm sure there are even more that I don't see. But I think that what it boils down to is this: we have lost faith. Having lost faith, we eventually lost the internal organ tasked with visual narrative storytelling. It atrophied and became as inert as a little appendix, buried quietly in the brain.
If we decide we would like to pick up these powerful tools again, we must not only put down our cynicism and, with the most painful naivete, regain the faith, we must regrow the organ - revive the old one, or evolve a new one. It will be no easy process, nor can identifying the process determine that it is a process worth undertaking. Do we really want to make visual narratives again?
I don't know. I kind of do. It's something I'm going to keep in mind. But I am very lucky, I am prone to faith.