cycleback.com.................table of ontents


a look at how humans think and see

4) The Limitations of Art
by David Rudd Cycleback



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An art form (novel, rock song, painting, poem…) is a form of language. The artist uses an art form as a means to communicate, or try to communicate, an idea or ideas to the audience. I use the word idea in a broad sense, ranging from factual idea to artistic meaning to feeling. I use the term audience to mean whoever is watching the movie, reading the book, listening to the music or viewing the painting. An audience can be one million and it can be one.

To be art the work must be profoundly beautiful or sublime. It must give an audience a sublime or profoundly beautiful experience. Beauty and sublime cannot be translated into simple words, so I do not attempt to define the words here.

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Not only is an art form made up and surrounded by a maze of conceits, but each form is itself a conceit. This means that art has both the practical benefits and the inherent limitations of all conceits.

An artistic conceit can be deep, trivial, traditional, ephemeral, regional, worldwide, conflicting and so on.

* * * *

The follow are examples of artistic conceits. Notice that some aren't about the art itself but how the art is presented.

* The way a country music song is supposed to sound. What instruments are supposed to be used and what instruments should not be used. How the musicians should dress and move in a music video. What topics the lyrics should cover. What topics the lyrics should not cover.

* Don't tell me that you or others don't judge a book by its cover. If the cover for a tough guy American football star's autobiography was changed from dark blue to pink, it would affect sales even though the text remained the same.

* Say the Chicago Symphony comes to town and offers wonderful performances of Beethoven's 9th Symphony and Hayden's Water Music. Many in the audience, including perhaps the local newspaper critic, will be unable to get beyond the fact that the orchestra dressed overly casual. The director in tank top and cutoff jeans. The lead violinist in bathrobe and stocking feet. Some in the audience will demand their money back, the newspaper critic might spend half her review complaining about the musicians' clothes.

* The clichéd structure, chords, riffs, chorus-to-lead, ending and starting styles, duration and other conceits of rock 'n roll songs. Upon analysis, you will find that singles by Pat Boone, Black Flag, ABBA, Black Sabbath and John Denver have far more in common than many of the respective fans would be willing to admit.

* A movie must be about people or things that are people-like. A movie about a birch tree would be a bomb. However, you might sell some tickets if you have an animated birch that can walk and talk, wears pants and a shirt, has a good sense of humor and has romantic feelings for that spruce of the opposite sex. If you stick in a car chase or two, an evil woodsman and his bad tempered chainsaw who wants to turn Mr. Birchy and all his tree pals into kindling, a fitting musical score and a happy ending with the woodsman foiled and Mr. Birchy and Miss Spruce smooching under a rainbow with nearby supercute bunnies giggling, you might have a blockbuster on your hands.

* When you go to an art museum, what should it look like inside? What should it not look like? What would be your reaction be if a show of Rembrandts had the original, centuries old paintings displayed in funky neon green and day glow yellow frames?

* In Western culture what art forms are generally considered more artistically significant than others? Novel versus comic book, oil painting versus finger painting, television show versus in theatre movie, classical music versus rock 'n roll, drama versus comedy, violin versus banjo? Why?

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In order to effectively communicate the essential artistic meaning, the artist must follow most of the audience's conceits. This not only includes the deeper conceits but the shallow.

To have the audience focus on the intended meaning, the artist must be faithful to, or at least take into consideration, most of the audience's expectations. Breaking a convention is a shock, a distraction. If the artist breaks all the conventions the audience will be too distracted to focus on the meaning. If you turn a busy street corner and a nude man painted orange and walking a deer in a tuxedo asks you for directions to the library I bet you won't comprehend the first sentence or two that comes out his mouth no matter how clearly he speaks. Similarly, if you display a Rembrandt painting in a hot pink and lime green fuzzy frame with flashing neon lights and dangling felt dice, don't be surprised if the gallery patron is unable to focus on the painting. If you want the patron to focus on the painting, you use a frame that fits his or her expectations.

* * * *

Artists intentionally bend or break some conventions while following the others. They follow all the other conventions in order to focus the audience's attentions on the intentionally bent or broken convention. I dare you to find a popular shock rock band that, while having a disturbing twist, does not follow the majority of fashionable conceits, even those used by The Kingston Trio and Sonny and Cher. What you intend to be shocking can't be shocking, or its shock value will be diluted to water, if the audience's attention is distracted by other things. Totally bewildering is rarely as haunting as a perverse twist of the ordinary.

The juxtaposition of the unexpected with the expected, the abnormal with the normal, is a common artistic technique. Many movies spend the first portion of the work merely setting up an artificial plot and setting to later subvert. How many monster movies start as a normal everyday white picket story? How many thrillers start as an everyday guy going about his everyday business?

The theme and variation is a standard musical technique-- altering the melody the second and third time around in a song or other work of music. In comparison to the remembered theme, the altered variation produces a psychological, sometimes poignant effect for the listener. Music can be plotted in a surprisingly similar way to a movie or novel.

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No matter how shallow the conceits, the successful artist must use or at least address most of the conceits of the audience. Successful art is a compromise between the artist and the audience. It is a communication and communication requires a common language. The artist may have radical things to say, but must communicate in a form the audience can understand. No matter how profound the meaning, the novelist who ignores all the audience's expectations and sensibilities might as well write the book in a foreign language. Great artists are often keenly aware that much of their artistic vision can never be communicated to others.

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