Narrative. It’s Not Necessary

The other day a colleague was talking about movies that he liked and those that left him cold. It very quickly became apparent that what made a movie “good” to him was story. He is a fan of plot-driven film and those that are lacking in that department do not interest him at all. Needless to say, he is not fond of Bergman or Fellini.

The conversation caused me to wonder about the place of narrative, particularly in the visual arts, although the issue comes up with other arts as well; another friend once remarked that the ballet was a “terrible way to tell a story.” That may well be true, but I guess I never thought that narrative was the sole purpose of the ballet or the only reason for appreciating it.

And that, I think, is the question. Is art simply a story-telling device or does it do other things and communicate in other ways? The phrasing of the question suggests that of course it is not just a story-telling device, but many artists think otherwise. There are numerous art professors who start a critique with “What is the story here?” demanding, of course, that there be one. Painter Hilary Harkness has said, “I think the core of painting is story.”

We have become so used to this idea that it seems natural. We expect there to be a narrative. Perhaps this is an extension of our repeated viewing of photojournalism, where the goal is definitely to tell a story. Whatever the reason, many have come to expect each piece of art to convey a narrative, and when it isn’t there, we are either disappointed, confused, or we pretend there is one.  For example, Judith Barter of The Art Institute of Chicago said of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic, “You believe there’s a narrative there, but there isn’t. I mean, you can’t read the story; you can’t complete the action, so that makes it both a successful painting but a difficult picture to talk about.”

Some are less circumspect in the way they view the connection between visual and narrative. Garry Winogrand said, “Photos have no narrative content. They only describe light on surface.”  And Mat Gleason with his usual soft touch has opined “Narratives are illusions, constructed in hindsight, often by the blindfolded.”

As harsh as Gleason’s statement is, it may be true. If an artwork is narrative, that narrative should be able to be expressed easily in words. But, unlike Harkness, some artists do not think that stories, at least stories that can be told in words, form the basis for art. They go even further. Edward Hopper has famously said, “If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” Photographer Lewis Hine has said much the same thing about photography: “If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera.”

Some critics recognize the validity of lack of narrative. For instance, Barbara Smith has called Brigitte Carnochan’s photography “visual haiku.” The notions of “narrative” or “story” do not come into play at any point. It occurs to me that you could describe the work of a number of artists similarly. Some create lyrics, some epics; some are making sonnets, all without words or narrative intent.

Just because we are used to thinking that all art is narrative does not mean that that is the only way to think, regardless of how natural it seems. There is a place for lyric painting, for photographic haiku, for cinematic meditation, for dance that is evocative rather than narrative. We would have far richer aesthetic lives if we stop trying to force art into a predetermined mindset of what it is “supposed to do” and accept and learn to appreciate what the artifact itself presents. We might even learn to expand our thinking and appreciation.

Date: Monday, 16. January 2012 0:03
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Aesthetics, Communication

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  1. 1

    Hi everyone!
    Agreed: narrative, it’s not necessary.
    “I think the core of painting is story” is something i said in the middle of an interview with David Galenson. I said it in answer to a question that was about my evolution as a painter- I spoke of how anti-narrative dogma was so strong when I was in school I didn’t even feel allowed to paint. When I finally discovered the paintings of Sasseta (1392-1450), I felt a door open into painting in a way that could include me. It gave me a place to start as a beginner painting in a hostile environment. When I say “I think story is the core of painting” I’m not saying “story is all that there is to painting” or “a painting has to have a story” or “come up with a story and illustrate it”. A painting containing a story can function on many levels beyond words. I want everyone to feel free to make their art in a way that rings true to them, because the more personal art is, the more universal it will be.
    Check out David Galenson’s writings about art – he’s a rock star! He inspired Malcolm Gladwell to write the chapter “Late Bloomers: Why Do We Equate Genius with Precocity” in his book “What the Dog Saw”. I’ve never read any analysis of art making that has been more comforting.
    Hilary Harkness

  2. 2

    Thank you for the clarification. Judging from the art students I talk to as well as conversations with other artists, the dogma has shifted to a definite pro-narrative stance, thus the post. And I will be sure to check out both Galenson and Gladwell. Thanks for pointing me in their direction.

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