Questions and Answers

Some good questions have been asked in the comments section to my previous post about Hal Hartley's new film, and so I thought it might be helpful to foreground that discussion a bit by giving it its own post.

Toward the end of the post about The Girl from Monday I wrote, "It's sad to see once-interesting artists decide that they have messages to communicate to the world," which the commenter pointed to and said,
That's a strange statement. It could be argued that ALL artists feel they have messages to communicate to the world, and I can't see that as a bad thing. It seems that what you object to is the lack of sophistication in these particular messages, or their lack of relevance to you, not their existence.
I then suggested it was a matter of approach, the difference between asking questions and giving answers, which elicited the question, "So no one has any answers to offer, even provisionally?" That seems a vital and important question to me, and it's made me try to think more specifically about why I so vehemently dislike what I tend to see as a pedantic use of fictional narratives (movies, short stories, novels, plays).

I'll start with what will, I'm sure, sound like an irrelevant semantic point: There is a difference, I think, between artists who "decide that they have messages to communicate to the world" and artists who "feel that they have messages to communicate to the world". It's probably true that everyone who creates things and makes them public feels they have something to communicate; otherwise, why bother? But to decide that you have something to communicate seems to me to be different, because a decision is more specific than a feeling, and it's the specificity -- the idea that you have a handle on Truth and now must go forth and communicate it -- that I dislike in narrative. A decision smacks of certainty; a feeling suggests exploration. It's the difference between something that makes you say, "Boy, that was preachy," rather than, "Wow, that's got me thinking..."

Maybe it has less to do with the artist's own ideas than it does with how the ideas within the work are shaped and expressed. When other elements within the work are as strong, or stronger than, the "message" being conveyed, it gives us something else to latch onto. Humor, for instance, can often make the message-bearing elements of a pedantic work more bearable. A richness of character development helps. Complexity of plot. Vivid imagery and language. The closest comparison I can think of to The Girl from Monday is Code 46, a movie that also projects a future dystopia from current trends, but which offers the viewer far more to think about, because its entire conception can't be summed up in a simple good/bad message. (There are plenty of better movies out there, but I'm trying to keep the comparison close.)

I do think people have answers to offer -- provisionally -- but I doubt that fictional narrative is the best way to offer them, and even if someone is determined that that is the best way, then they need to aim for complexity rather than simplicity. A simple message conveyed in a simple way is fine for greeting cards and political speeches, but such an approach weakens narrative fictions, which work best when the audience is given a variety of elements to consider and enjoy.

Terry Teachout wrote an essay about political theatre recently, and though I disagree with about half of it, I do think he's onto something, and I particularly liked when he quoted John Sayles:
Asked by an interviewer why so few American directors make political movies, Sayles replied, "I think more than being political or not political, it's often the problem of being complex: The characters aren't heroic. Sometimes they do things you don't like, even if you may like them, and it's hard to know exactly who the good guys and bad guys are, because everybody is a little bit compromised."
Artists who decide they have a message to convey usually dispense with complexity, because complexity might insert noise in the message. (Sayles himself fell victim to this, I thought, with Silver City.) Yet complexity is one of the great strengths of narrative -- the ability to portray multiple characters and settings, to show human beings in conflict and harmony with each other, to explore time and emotion, to experiment with the effects of point of view. Look at Dostoyevsky, a writer who seemed to have very clear ideas about what sorts of messages he wanted to convey to his readers, but whose fiction is so complex, the characters so rich and varied in their beliefs and actions, that any polemical purpose usually gets destroyed.

In the theatre, Caryl Churchill is usually an excellent example of a writer with strong political and social convictions explored in her plays without those convictions seeming to overwhelm the audience with the playwright's answers to her own questions. (I wrote not too long ago about her play A Number. Top Girls is a clearer example: a play that is very much about feminism and women's place in society and history.)

It may be that I'm contradicting myself, because it's true what I object to is "the lack of sophistication in these particular messages ... not their existence." Or maybe not. If I get semantic again, I can object to the existence of messages: the word message suggests a statement, and I wonder just how sophisticated and complex such a thing can be. I'm suspicious of anything that could be said to have a political or social message rather than political or social subject matter. When an artist who has previously created interesting work decides that they have a message to convey, then they are squeezing their subject matter into a mold so that it will get that message out, and anything that distracts from the message is kept away. They have decided on an answer, and the answer is the message, with every other element of the work becoming subservient to the delivery of the answer. I think that's an impoverishing approach to creative work. It flatters an audience that agrees with the message and gives nothing to an audience that doesn't. At best, such a strategy is boring; at worst, dishonest and manipulative.

On the other hand, I'm wary of making any absolutist statements about art, and I'm moving dangerously toward that territory here. Geniuses can prove generalities wrong, and each film, play, novel, and story should be looked at for its own merits and oddities, not dismissed simply because it fits a template some crackpot critic came up with. Maybe I should try to crack fewer pots...


  1. -It's the difference between something that makes you say, "Boy, that was preachy," rather than, "Wow, that's got me thinking..."-

    That, I think, is the perfect summation of my own feelings on this sort of thing. I hate starting a story and realizing, about a page in, that I'm going to be learning a lesson by the end. Usually I can't make myself finish stories (movies, books, epic cuneiform poems, etc) like that. It all comes down to the position of the artist, and where he puts himself in relation to the audience. Truth delivered from on High, or Hey, here's something I've been think about. Help me kick it around.

  2. It's an interesting (and I believe, important) topic, and I hope you know that I'm not trying to pick apart your words but rather to drill down deeper into what you're getting at.

    I certainly agree that pedantic writing is almost always bad writing. No argument there. What I'm suggesting is that creating a work that includes a message or moral does not necessarily mean that one has written a pedantic work. It seems to me that virtually all of the best works ever produced (fill in the blanks with your own favorites) contain a perspective that is both specific and intentional and therefore qualifies as a "message" in the sense that we're talking about here.

    Artists who decide they have a message to convey usually dispense with complexity

    I agree that they often do, and I might even concede your "usually," but what of those who don't? What of Shakespeare, who can present not just two but numerous distinct and opposing viewpoints with depth and clarity and feeling and yet manages to express an overriding point of view or "message"? Are LeGuin and Atwood to be dismissed because they speak feminist messages, regardless of the effectiveness of their fiction? It seems to me that the best art often (usually?) carves out and defends a position, moral and otherwise, and that in the hands of the talented, this does not necessarily degrade their work to simplistic polemics but rather raises it to something more relevant and lasting than simpler plot-driven works. I don't think we should penalize all artists because of the errors of the clumsy.

    I'm suspicious of anything that could be said to have a political or social message rather than political or social subject matter.

    I guess I'm not clear on the difference. A political or social insight is what the artist is trying to convey. Your distinction seems to be whether he does so subtly or by shouting slogans on a soapbox. Again, I would agree that the latter is of limited artistry (and probably utility), but so long as political, social, and moral issues are integral parts of what it is to be human, I can't see excluding them from the realm of artistic endeavor; rather, to me, they are its core.

  3. I very much appreciate the close reading of what I wrote, and the opportunity to reconsider some of my own assumptions. That's why I thought it needed a post of its own. Really, I think we're actually pretty close in opinion, though using different terminology and putting emphasis on different things.

    I like the use of the word insight, although that's not quite what I was getting at with the idea of "subject matter" rather than "messages" -- subject matter seems more neutral to me than a message, less directed, larger, more amorphous. An insight would be an idea that really works, so for me, at least, it would by definition be positive, and something that has insights is therefore insightful. long as political, social, and moral issues are integral parts of what it is to be human, I can't see excluding them from the realm of artistic endeavor; rather, to me, they are its core. I agree completely. (Well, right now I do. I do change my mind a lot.) "Message" though, I see as different from "issues", which is closer to what I'd call subject matter. The word issue in current U.S. culture has become problematic, though, so it's one I tend to avoid, but regardless of whether X is an issue or subject matter, I think we're talking about the same thing.

  4. I think we're close, too, but remain troubled by the idea that an artist's work, informed by political or social subject matter reflected through the prism of his own perspective and created with specific intentionality, can be deemed not to contain a message just because the presentation is not overt.

    If I write a short story in which slavery is part of the society in which the story takes place, it's likely that there will be an anti-slavery subtext to my story, something that subverts what otherwise might be construed as an endorsement, even if I don't present specific arguments against the practice (certainly it is conceivable to write a pro-slavery story, and people have; I'm just saying that I'm not likely to write such a story). Even though I'm not directly preaching my moral point-of-view, surely I am still conveying a message that is received by my readers and may affect them? Does Huckleberry Finn not convey a powerful anti-racist message despite the fact that Twain never speaks directly to the reader and says "racism is bad"?


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