Post from January, 2016

The Necessity of Fantasy

Monday, 25. January 2016 0:00

There’s a guy I know, a vociferous reader, who refuses to read anything that could be considered fantasy. “Not realistic,” he says. He reads mysteries, detective stories, lawyer novels, not seeming to realize that those books he is calling realistic are every bit as fanciful as those written by Anne Rice or Stephen King or Margaret Atwood or George Orwell. (Although in Orwell’s case, one might argue that his books are not fantasy at all, but rather prophesy.)

Those of us who work in theatre are told from the very beginning that stage dialogue is not realistic speech. If well written, it has verisimilitude, but it is stripped down, shaped, and refined to support the action of the play. We accept this. We know that film is not reality; in fact at least one text on the subject says that since the digitization of the motion picture, all movies are fantasy and live action just one of the subsets of animation.

It’s all make believe. We know that the characters in movies don’t really die; neither do the protagonists of novels. Equally unreal is the person who is held captive in a graphic novel, or experiences a life-threatening situation in a staged photograph. At the same time, this make believe, or imagination, if you will, allows us to teach, learn, show, tell, explore, reveal in ways that would be impossible without a flight of imagination.

Fantasy is often denigrated for two reasons: first, some feel that it is unworthy of genuine consideration in the art world simply on the basis of subject matter. For many it means dragons and magic and monsters and things that are impossible—at least on this plane of existence and therefore could never contribute anything meaningful to “serious” art.

The second reason has to do the sociological and psychological implications of some fantasy art: violent video games and pornography, just to mention the two most talked-about examples. No one, it seems, actually knows the effects of interacting with these works: some say that participating in these fantasies short-circuits any need to act out in reality; others say the opposite, that exposure to these fantasies actually encourage that acting-out of similar activities in the real world. Regardless, all seem to agree that such fantasy art has a significant impact on its audience. Were the subject matter different, many would say that such impact marks such art works as highly successful.

However, fantasy does not necessarily mean the extremes noted above, or even magic and supernatural. It can merely mean a flight of fancy, or simply “imagination, especially when extravagant and unrestrained.”

Without fantasy, art is exactly like life—with all the irrelevancies, distractions, mundane details that do not contribute to the message or the appeal of the piece. It becomes the same boring stuff that we live through every day rather than the instructive, insightful, beautiful thing that it is.

Without fantasy we would be left with only non-fiction, and reproductive visual art, exclusively naturalistic performing art (if performance can really be naturalistic). The art world would be very barren indeed. When we stop and think about it, it seems that imagination and fantasy are actually the foundations of art, certainly what allow it to grow and flower.

Regardless what detractors may say, fantasy in varying degrees greatly enriches our lives through art. In fact, without fantasy, we have no art. Period. Given that, fantasy may be something we want to reconsider and embrace.

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It has to Resonate

Monday, 11. January 2016 0:59

Sometimes a particular movie or book or painting or sculpture or live stage production will speak to us. There is no immediate explanation of why this happens, but it does. I used to say that in some way those pieces allowed a glimpse of some sort of universal truth. I have since learned that the same pieces that speak to me leave others cold, so perhaps the truth is not so universal after all.

This has nothing to do with whether the piece of art in question is considered “great art” or not. In some cases it is a masterwork and in others it is a “cult” work, and in others it is some obscure piece that no one has heard of. I don’t know if this is the case for everyone, but I rather suspect it is.

And it does not have to be the whole piece; sometimes it’s just a single scene or even a single line. In the case of visual piece, it could be a small detail or a juxtaposition of visual ideas. There is no way to predict what element might reach out and grab my (or anyone else’s) psyche. But it happens; some works of art resonate and some do not. And that’s really the only thing to call it: resonation.

Nobody seems to know exactly why or how it happens. In speaking of the cult status of the movie Nomads, Lesley-Anne Down says that it was not a “popular movie” but one that appealed to those with “strange minds” who were not interested in the predictable. The implication is, of course, that certain pieces appeal to those with certain mind-sets. Perhaps that is true.

Even though there is no real predictability in terms of what will resonate, the work of particular painters, writers, sculptors, photographers, choreographers touch me repeatedly and the work or others do not. Again, I suspect this is true for others. Whatever the reason, it seems fairly consistent.

And if whatever “truth” an artist presents resonates with a small group of like-minded people, there may be a “cult following,” as in the case of Nomads. If there is a larger group, the work becomes “popular.” If there is an even larger group, it can become a “classic.”

And beyond classic are those artists who become immortal by speaking to multiple generations across space and time. These artists have presented something in their work that continues to communicate, to resonate, long after they have passed from the scene.

What that something is that continues to resonate with such a far-removed audience is the stuff of academic monographs and seminar discussions. The fact is that nobody quite knows. All we know is that Shakespeare and Van Gough and Praxiteles and Beethoven and Walker Evans continue to move and inspire us today. When asked, all we can say is, “the work resonates with us.”

What we do know is that resonance is not something that can be planned. Marketers spend millions attempting to do that and still fail. The best that we can do is put as much truth as we can—perhaps that same sort of truth we recognize in works that resonate with us—into our own work and hope that our truth will resonate with others who encounter our art.

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