Last month, Star Wars director George Lucas broke ground on the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, a passion project that has taken twelve months to get this far. The museum’s director recently told ArtNet that the aim of the Lucas Museum is to explore how “art plays an important role in societies, cultures, communities, and families by communicating stories that are meaningful, shaping our belief systems, religious views, or political understanding of the world—whatever it is”.
Yet much of the visual art made in the lead-up to the 21st century shuns a clear story altogether, as emphasised by the British Turner Prize, an annual award which showcases the best of the country’s modern art scene. The work of nominees and winners such as Ian Davenport and Tomma Abts focus entirely on process and abstraction rather than narrative. Meanwhile many artforms which deal in straightforward storytelling, such as TV or literature, are shunning non-linear story for something more complex, or altogether story-free. Could this be a harbinger of things to come for future art movements, or do we as consumers of media rely too much on narrative? Does art even need to tell a story in the first place?
Why does fine art tell stories?
The Lucas Museum notes that its collection will contain narrative artforms from across a wide spectrum of visual arts – “you may see a 19th-century European painting alongside a 21st-century original Manga drawing—both bona fide works of narrative art”, the website claims. These two media tell stories in different ways, with Manga (or any comic or graphic novel) effectively collecting a series of paintings to tell a wider, longer story.
It has also been noted that the history of storytelling through art came about, at least in part, through the ruling classes, whose positive attributes could be spread more effectively amongst their illiterate subjects through imagery rather than the written word. It also allowed those in power to judiciously edit out any negative aspects of their history for future generations, and even act as a surrogate for news; as the Tate points out, “history painting was one of the few ways that the British public could experience its overseas empire”.
In the case of figurative art—paintings with recognisable, real-world images and figures—the story often occurs in the viewer’s brain. Hyperallergic notes the “forensic level of detail” in a some recent works of art, which add layers of depth to the stories artists are telling in their work.
Does imposing a story do a disservice to an artist’s work?
The old saying goes that every picture tells a story, and iconic sixties essayist Joan Didion justified our desire for narrative with her insistence that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live”. Wired points to a study from the forties in which an abstract film was shown to a test panel, who were then asked to decipher it; only one of the 34 viewers “saw the scene for what it was”, with the remaining 33 concocting their own stories to explain what they had just seen.
A prominent Philadelphia art writer recently noted about abstract art that “to impose a story onto a brilliant red, or a coy arc, can do a disservice to the work”. Yet while the film in that experiment was designed to be completely narrativeless, it now comes with its own story—albeit one that isn’t being told by the work itself. Indeed, whether or not an artist’s work itself has a narrative, the artist’s own story can’t help but seep into viewers’ minds.
So whilst some critics have argued that “contemporary art is the first to truly have the power to go beyond the narrative”, that doesn’t stop our subconscious quest for a good story identifying one when there isn’t necessarily one to be found.
Dublin Contemporary 2011 – William Murphy on flickr – some rights reserved
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A myth-busting zeitgeist chaser & part-time polemicist with a background as a freelance humourist and journalist. Follow Sam on twitter for more #wittyinsights.
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