Art evolves

#78 in David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Amazon):

“It is important for a writer to be cognizant of the marginilization of literature by more technologically sophisticated and more visceral narrative forms. You can work in these forms or use them or write about them or through them, but I don’t think it’s a very good idea to go on writing in a vacuum. Culture, like science, moves forward. Art evolves.”

I’m not saying Shields is right* or wrong (nor am, I, contrary to one of the hyperventilated claims by a blurb or review of the book — can’t remember which — either loving or hating the book. It’s got some good points and some effective goading; it’s got some ineffective goading and some silly preoccupations). And to be fair to Shields — there’s also a lot of context (618 different sections) that’s missing if all you see is #78, and the work itself is a pastiche that includes (unattributed except for in the notes section at the end of the book) aphorisms and quips and earnest predictions, etc. from many other writers, so this is an act of cherrypicking.

All that said: does art evolve? Or does it progress? Or does it restore? Or does it preserve? Or does it increase? Or does it roll forth? (to use a series of verbs that have some resonance in Mormon thought).

*I originally had “write” when this was posted. I may trot out the silly postmodern puns from time to time, but “write or wrong” wasn’t intentional at all.

6 thoughts on “Art evolves”

  1. What we tell stories about changes, but the narrative structure of stories doesn’t. Nor do I believe that consumers of stories want their narratives to be more “technologically sophisticated” (i.e., the so-called “rich media” formats), except in the abstract.

    The only commercially viable example I can think of is the “visual novel” in Japan. That it hasn’t caught on elsewhere is telling (and in Japan it’s considered a video game format). The money is still on conventional, linear storytelling. Studios like Key Visual Arts do very well turning “visual novels” into conventional television series.

    John Yemma, editor of The Christian Science Monitor (linked to here), agrees with Rupert Murdock that “Content is King,” and that “there’s no evidence that users love [rich media sites] so much that they flock to them, stay around, and convert to a news site’s brand because of cool multimedia.”

    We’ve been down this path before. I used to work in “rich media,” and as I argue at the link above, I see no compelling reason it won’t fail again for the same reasons it failed the first time. There’s no brand new need to “reinvent” the story. We just need to keep telling good stories well.

    The delivery mechanisms constantly evolve (this is where conventional publishers are really shooting themselves in their collective feet). The content doesn’t. Readers will tolerate a crappy delivery mechanism to get to a good story, but not the opposite (at least not for long).

  2. So far Shields seems to be talking more about the uses of nonfiction and memoir as a response to reality TV rather than the “rich content” notion. That is, further blurring of fiction and nonfiction. It’s not so much a call for changing the demands of storytelling so much as the materials and trappings and their relationships to the author.

    Things may change as the book progresses, though.

  3. .

    My unpublished novel has no cellphones. So if I publish it now, I need to be clear what year it takes place. Because that one change in our culture dates my book dearly.

  4. Artistic communities evolve. Or maybe succeed each other, in Harold Bloomian fashion.

    I’m willing to concede that there’s an evolution in delivery media. I also suspect that there is evolution within specific audience communities, which often gets mistaken (by those within such communities or too heavily influenced by them) for a general evolution in Art. For example, claims that traditional storytelling is dead (rampant during the later decades of the twentieth century) could only be looking at a pretty narcissistically small part of the total spectrum of writing in order to arrive at that conclusion — ignoring, for example, the entire field of science fiction and fantasy (let alone other “genre” fiction).

    Theories about the evolution of art tend to be far too totalizing and hegemonic, in my view. Most seem to be erected on a structure of (self-reinforcing) assumptions that only certain artistic trends are worthy of serious consideration.

    (Sorry. I have a headache today… Please forgive if I come across as unreasonably cantankerous.)

  5. .

    Seems like a good time to remember Marshall McLuhan. Because he was right. The medium is the message. The form art takes is hugely important to what sort of tale can be or should be or at least will be told.

  6. I think Theric’s point is important, but I also think that Jonathan’s point about mistaking evolution in specific communities for a general evolution in Art (or whatever).

    I find myself in the weird position, for example, of, if I want to connect with everyone I want to connect with, having to use the phone, e-mail, blogs, IM, Twitter, Facebook, web forums and e-mail lists.

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