What makes a novel, a film, or a song art? And what do these do, exactly? Questions likely to get even the baldest heads scratched, if at least because “art” is one of those fat terms—like “culture” or “society”—behind which a little bit of everything is generally thought to hide.
Yet as a flabby idea, art is unique for its resistance to political theorizing. There is perhaps no surer way of provoking mental acrobatics than by surprising political circles with a discussion on artistic merit. And it works whether the participants are lefties, reactionaries, or just radically centered (that is, bland enough to be revolutionary only when the ground is moving).
And examples aren’t exactly lacking. In a pub just a few weeks ago, I found an otherwise dependable socialist haranguing his audience over their cinematic taste. “La La Land,” he explained to the gathering, minutes after a spirited defence of the Maidan Revolution, “is obviously too bourgeois … it’s just capitalist nostalgia.” A remark of astonishing cliché, which nonetheless pales in comparison to one I’d heard some years before, when an Italian EU bureaucrat—predictably center-right, if clear-eyed as to the Union’s deficiencies—thumped my flirtatious conversation by finding fault with art itself (”it brings nothing to society: it’s useless”).
But the Right has a knack for producing the greater gymnasts, and nowhere is this more evident today than in its attacks against “Hollywood values.” It was only recently that the American Spectator, as always a reliable peddler of buffoonery, ascribed Moonlight’s Academy Awards victory to politics. Their cultural critic, Daniel J. Flynn, went so far as to claim the film hadn’t been judged on “aesthetics,” somersaulting to the anti-McCarthyism of postwar communist screenwriter Albert Maltz to discredit it. To him, the work was just “a sad, slow vehicle for actors that overlooks the need for script, story, and plot and mistakes depressing for deep.” Rare are the occasions that give such a perfect opportunity for Nabokovian phrasing—ah the “intricate convolutions of sheer stupidity”!
If I bring these cases up, it’s because the errors they harbor are fairly obvious and allow for the realization that what turns a work into, well, art is different from what that artwork says. Yes, La La Land may well be bourgeois, but so what? Whether or not the film embraces, fondly, a world available solely to the non-exploited—if that’s indeed what the man meant—is irrelevant to its worth as a movie. In a similar way, our bureaucrat’s idea that art doesn’t directly contribute to the welfare of a society is obviously true, if unoriginally so. But there again, so what? Only those artists afflicted by the most debilitating conceit would claim otherwise; the point of art is something else entirely.
The same of course goes for Moonlight and its supposed Hollywood values (with the added mention that “script, story, and plot” aren’t quite comparable to aesthetics … but we’ll get to that later). That is because a work of art, whether it’s a film, a piece of music, or literature, is never really about what that work says, but rather how it says it. If La La Land and Moonlight are such fantastic movies, it has more to do with their cinematography, their music, and/or their theater, than with their politics. We enjoy watching them because the combination of these three aspects provokes in us an emotional reaction: delight, despair, or—in the greatest works—a deep, bittersweet combination of the two.
Simply put, art isn’t defined by its subject; that is, the arguments, ideas, and plot(s) of a work are external to judgements of its artistic quality. That point may be easier to grasp in music and cinema, but it is nonetheless true for the written word.
In his lectures, Vladimir Nabokov (him again) introduced three “points of view” from which a “major writer” could be approached—“as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter.” He nonetheless played favorites: “but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.” The reasoning behind this is fairly straightforward. First and foremost, it is worth remembering that writing that “teaches” ideas or facts isn’t in itself artistic, and in the majority of cases doesn’t pretend to be. No one would consider a textbook, manifesto, history, philosophical essay, or nondescript academic text art, unless it attempted something other than the straight imparting of knowledge. The artistic qualities of a piece of writing are therefore largely sourced elsewhere.
The logic against mere storytelling follows the same pattern, if a little more subtly. It is essential to realize that stories in themselves aren’t tied down to form: The same plot is as easily filmed, embroidered thick on tapestry, or recounted late at night by your inebriated buddy as it is written down in fanciful prose. Fundamentally, the varying emotional experiences that all these media offer, for the same story, are a product of the differences in how that story is conveyed.
Take, for example, a scene from Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano, adapted into a movie in 1984: It is mid-morning and a woman, Yvonne, has just returned to the town she used to live in, stumbling upon her ex-husband—the sole patron in a squalid cantina.
[She] then entered the bar silently, blinking, myopic in the swift leathery perfumed alcoholic dusk, the sea that morning going in with her, rough and pure, the long dawn rollers advancing, rising, and crashing down to glide, sinking in colorless ellipses over the sand, while early pelicans hunting turned and dived, dived and turned and dived again into the spume, moving with the precision of planets, the spent breakers racing back to their calm; flotsam was scattered all along the beach: she had heard, from the small boats tossing in the Spanish Main, the boys, like young Tritons, already beginning to blow on their mournful conch shells…
The bar was empty, however.
Or rather it contained one figure.
—from “Under the Volcano” by Malcom Lowry
A brief comparison between this passage and its cinematic counterpart is enough to make their enormous discrepancies clear. And yet it’s not the setting, or the story, or even the works’ wider emotions that are different, but something else entirely: the style.
In the novel, poetic imagery is what gives us the sentimental crash: Lowry juxtaposes Yvonne’s earlier, buoyant experiences on the seaside with the sight of that ex-marital wreck. The author’s masterful use of the poetic palette—that is, the sound, rhythmic and otherwise, of the words, the images they conjure, and the overall atmosphere of his prose—is where the emotional strength of the work resides. Those characteristics are roughly what we know as aesthetics. And they differ from the film’s stylistic techniques: Jacqueline Bisset’s mortified expression; a shot of her standing directly behind the spattering drunk; long silences, filled solely with the sounds of birds and crickets… The style and manner in which the two media express themselves are entirely different.
French writers have long argued that poetry was “music before all else” (to quote Paul Verlaine), and it may be with them that one can most easily grasp the idea of style. Roland Barthes, in the introduction to his Essais Critiques, illustrates the point by using a specific kind of creation: that of composing a letter to a grieving friend. What he means to write to the bereaved can be “reduced to a simple phrase: My condolences” (translation mine). Yet to say that, with no other comment or gesture, would obviously be a particularly “cold” communication—that is, in fact, elicit an emotion opposite to the straightforward, grammatical definition of “my condolences.” Barthes has thus found that the “feelings of words” are unrelated to their meaning.
He however never fully grasped, exactly, what in words conjures those feelings, and only wrote vaguely about “variations” being key (just as—he argued somewhat wrongly—they were in music). Yet poets before and after him certainly did have a grasp of the way words express feelings. Consider these famous lines from Percy Shelley’s Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude:
– – – – – –! Oh, that the dream
Of dark magician in his visioned cave,
Raking the cinders of a crucible
For life and power, even when his feeble hand
Shakes in its last decay, were the true law
Of this so lovely world!
This is a romantic cry (for the unattainable ideals of the arts and sciences, no less) conveyed solely via the work’s aesthetics. The poetic palette mentioned above is, unlike in Under the Volcano, all there is to the work: The poem evokes the feelings of a beautiful, worthwhile, doomed pursuit … not telling us what that pursuit is. There is no story, no knowledge imparted, just the emotion—the epitome of pure poetry (though of course the form could be even more musical if it had rhymes). As with all other forms of art, here style is substance.
Yet as we saw with Lowry, these aspects aren’t confined to poetry. They in fact, have been central features of all forms of artistic writing since at least the mid-19th century. Consider the words of American critic Edmund Wilson, whose essay entitled “Is Verse a Dying Technique?” argued that prose’s poetic pretensions could be traced to Gustave Flaubert. In it, he wrote that the Frenchman was “the first great writer in prose deliberately to try to take over for the treatment of ambitious subjects the delicacy, the precision and the intensity that have hitherto been identified with verse.”
Though Wilson suspiciously forgot the oeuvre of writers like Charles Dickens or Gérard de Nerval, his main reasoning holds: Novelists use poetic techniques, and have in fact been doing so with increasing regularity at least since fiction evolved into the dominant literary form. The movement of Modernism itself, recently described by Eimear McBride as the moment when “the how became as important as the what” in prose, inevitably falls to poetry. The greatest writers of the last century—Nabokov, Woolf, Joyce, etc…—have all been, first and foremost, virtuosic stylists.
“I usually take beauty to indicate truth,” wrote poet Monica McClure in her recent review of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. A perfectly sensible statement to make, particularly for a poet, since in her art, beauty is truth. (Although maybe I shouldn’t look too much into this; McClure also once started a poem with “Inquiries feel like enemas.”) That is, after all, what is meant when one says that style is substance—it is the beauty, the imagery, the music of the words that matter in poetry. And it is, likewise, that beauty which ultimately takes precedence in fiction, and in all other forms of art.
A work’s story, or the ideas it tries to teach, aren’t “true” to the work itself simply because they do not really belong to it. Tales and concepts exist regardless of the media in which they’re conveyed, and they are precisely the same whatever the form used to express them. The only thing that changes from one art to another is that art’s beauty, its aesthetic form, its how instead of its what.
With that in mind, one can come up with a perfectly good answer to the original question: What makes art, art? Its emotional output, which as we’ve seen is entirely dependent on aesthetics, is its purpose. In a purely aesthetic medium like music, that expression is found in melody, timbre, and rhythm. In a composite one like cinema—made of visuals, music, and theater—it is found in the interplay and resonances between the three forms’ own differing aesthetics. And in literature, where the writer must always combine style with the meaning of the words he or she uses, it is first and foremost found in the poetry—the mélange of music and imagery.
This story is part of the Culture Trip Special: Limits collection.