Friday, March 09, 2007

Will The Real Art Please Stand Up?

So, there was this long-ass thread on CBR, and this is a post I made there. I thought it was good enough to share with the world at large. Enjoy.

"My thoughts on the matter are best summed up (and that's a liberal use of the term, as you'll see) as not a reply to anyone in particular, but just as a response. They do, however, center around one central thought: What's so great about purity of vision?

I'll give everyone a moment to replace their monocles.

There's an unstated assumption (one would almost say conceit) going 'round (not just here, but anywhere art is discussed beyond "Last night's Heroes was kickin' rad!") that singular art is inherently superior to collaborative art. And it seems to me that 'tain't necessarily so. (The It Seems To Me should really be highlighted more than is possible in the message board format, because we're talking about art philosophy and art process, if there's anything about art that's truly subjective, it's philosophy and process.)

The defining feature of singular art, under this rubric, is the purity of a single artist's vision, undiluted by outside influence. And right there is where I start to have problems with the theory. I'm not sure I've ever seen a complete work of art that was a single artist's vision, undiluted and pure. (Which isn't to say I don't think it exists. I've never seen God either, but I'm pretty sure most days He exists. But I digress, and that's someone else's racket.)

Donne wrote that no man is an island, alone unto himself. That passage informs much of my thinking about everything, including art. Art, of course, is ideas plus work. And, to my thinking, neither is truly the whole creation of a single person. Even a boy raised by wolves will, when given a paintbrush, create pictures based on his experiences and thoughts, and it's very rare that our experiences and thoughts are ours alone. Many of our experiences, by dint of being shared, are colored by the people we share them with. And many of our thoughts are things we've learned, things brought to us by others.

An idea can be said to be most ours, though, when we first have it; it's had the least amount of outside input. And, for a while (longer for some than others), as we turn it about in our head, it remains ours. Certainly, two artists will interpret the same idea in different ways. This interpretation of the idea is the root of the "vision," so we can say that that right there is as pure as it gets. And already, simply because neither the idea nor the interpretation comes wholly from ourselves, but is informed and shaped by outside things that influence us, it's not truly pure. If it ever was.

So already, to my mind, the myth begins to break down. And once you bring work into the equation, it gets further muddled. Because it's truly the rare artist whose idea is not changed by the work done on it. Anecdotal evidence is said to be the worst kind, but nevertheless, my own experience certainly suggests against it. My story I published last year started out, I thought, as a light-hearted love story to Superman; it wasn't until I found myself lasering Krypto's paw off that I realized I was doing something else entirely. It's certainly a mantra amongst my favorite authors that what they end up creating is only ever, at best, an approximation of what they started out with. Because work is effort plus time, and everything changes over time.

Furthermore, it's the rare artist who never shows his work to anyone until the final draft is complete. And, once again as science tells us, the act of observation changes what is observed. Joe shared his novel with many beta readers, got feedback from them, used it to change the story; is it really, then, solely his vison? Howy does the same with his art; same question? What about Morts? Punchy? Grant Morrison?

So I'm not at all sure singular art of the kind being held up here really exists. But beyond that, I'm doubly not sure that collaborative art is, by nature, harmfully dilutive. Again, this is largely due to experience. When I think of collaborative art, I think band music, I think theatre, I think film (and its bastard, midget cousin television). My earliest experiences in art (at least, after the point where I could understand what art was) were in two of these (the first two, for those wondering). Now, the underlying assumption in the collaborative inferiority theory is that many people will bring many different visions to the work, and that these visions, like particles of equal force and opposite direction, tend to cancel each other out. But my experience tells me that's not true. Certainly, it's possible; with egos, all things are possible. But when collaborative art is good (dare I say it, great), when it's on, something quite different takes place. Individuals, even the conductor/director, cease to matter, and it becomes all about the work. Instead of clashing, the visions blend; pink and blue become purple, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I can't explain it in words, except to say that you know it when it happens, and that it's a kind of magic. Then again, what art isn't?

(A brief word on conductors/directors: One might assume that it's their energy directing the magic, that their force of will overrides the others, so that they're a celestial bus driver of sorts. In my experience, it's more like an avalanche; they roll up the first little ball of snow and send it down the mountain, but gravity does its share of the work. {The actors, musicians, technicians, etc., are gravity.} After all, Beethoven couldn't hear whether the musicians were getting the 9th Symphony right; he had to trust that they knew what they were doing.)

Observational experience confirms this. The best collaborative work I've seen is that where everyone is giving their all, and there is a synthesis. And the best collaborative artists I've known tell the same thing. After all, one of my favorite novels is the work of two authors, and damned if I can tell who did what. Moreover, I'll stake my career and my soul on the best collaborative art being just as good as the best singular, purity of vision be damned. Good jambalaya is good jambalaya, no matter who's putting in the spice. And moreover, I think it's downright elitist, in the most negative connotation of the word, to say that the hard work and raw talent of the many people who gave of themselves (it's sacrificial magic; did I mention that?) to make a great film like Pan's Labyrinth is inferior just because Guillermo del Toro didn't do all the heavy brain liftin' himself. To say nothing of downright rude.

So really, I don't believe in auteurs. I believe that some artists are smarter than others, some more charismatic, some better at pushing the snowball. But I don't believe in pharaohs. And if I have any Grand Unified Theory of Art, it's that there's no One Way to do it that makes it better than anything else. There's what works, and there are as many ways that work as there are works of art. (That number, by the way, approaches infinity).

In closing, I see a lot of similarity between the singular superiority theory and Plato's cave allegory. Both assert that there is a higher, realer reality, and an inferior, detestable shadow. Me, I think Plato was just jerking off. I've lived in this cave my whole life, and I don't see any sign of his "true reality." I just see the shadows we're given, and what we make of them. And all I want is for everyone to make the best damn shadow puppets they know how.

Now, someone do disfigured rabbit. That's my favorite."

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