Friday, March 9, 2012

The Art of Words

So I was talking recently with my friend Elana Johnson (her book, btw, is totally on sale now, you should buy it) about how writing can be an art. I say "can be" because I'm not sure it's always an art--although that's a debate for a different day.

But our conversation really got me thinking--about words, about art in general, and about how we are influenced by the things we like. I wonder: does the art that you like influence the way you express your own art?

I happen to be a huge fan of painting--specifically Pre-Raphaelite paintings. (I blogged about this before, but it's been a few years. Still, if you'd like to see my original thoughts on the subject, as well as my favorite piece of art, click here.)

I suppose you could look at artistic movements like genres of written works. My favorite genre is YA, my favorite artistic movement is Pre-Raphaelite. I don't really appreciate adult literary titles, but then again, Dadaism is lost on me. While I can look at a piece of Dadaist art and recognize that (a) it is art and (b) it has value, it has no emotional resonance within me.

That said, I don't think it's really as simple as that. Because even within my own beloved YA genre, there are different styles. And so I think it comes down to this: we are each of us an artist, and our art is reflective of the things we like within art, not necessarily the artistic style.

When I think about why I like Pre-Raphaelite art, I come up with this list:

  • Beautiful execution. The paintings are vivid and realistic and beautiful to look at. Some art is meant to disturb; this art is meant to be beautiful (although there is disturbing themes--the painting of Ophelia to the left is supposed to show her at the moment of her death).
  • Fantastic subjects. I mean fantastic in the literal sense--the settings and subjects of the paintings are often derived from mythology or Shakespearean lore.
  • Attention to detail. In the painting of Ophelia, even the selection of flowers held in her hands hold symbolic meaning. I cannot name a single Pre-Raphaelite painting that doesn't include significant symbolism in the images.
These are also the same things that I love about my favorite YA novels:
  • Beautiful execution. I say this all the time, but Carrie Ryan's THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH changed the way I looked at YA books specifically because they were so beautifully written. Yes, they're about zombies. But they're beautiful
  • Fantastic subjects. I like my books to have fantasy or sci fi in them. I want the impossible to happen. I don't need to hold onto realism--I want magic and stars.
  • Attention to detail. One of my very favorite literary devices is foreshadow. I want a complicated story, yes, but I want the end to surprise me. Foreshadow is the key to this. Show me all the clues in the story, and then show me how they solve the plot. Think of JK Rowling--you see polyjuice potion in Book 2, but then the plot of Book 4 hinges on it. That is brilliant. That is the detail that wins the books. 
If a piece of art can be beautiful--yet thought-provoking--dealing with a subject matter that's not mundane while also showing a high level of detail that casts significance on even the smallest part of the painting--then I will love that painting. 

If a book can sling around beautiful words and phrases--and yet have a deeper meaning to the text--while also taking place in a fantasy or sci fi world and using a high level of detail (such as through foreshadowing)--then I will love that book.

This is, perhaps, one of the reasons why I loved Laini Taylor's LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES (the fact that the first story is based on a poem by a Pre-Raphaelite artist notwithstanding). It combines significant beautiful art (by the equally brilliant Jim DiBartolo) with beautiful words to create a complete story that incorporates all the ingredients to a book I love: beauty, fantasy, and depth.

I find this kind of comparison between visual art and literature fascinating. Would someone who prefers Dadaism, for example, also like the same books that I like? And if so--would that person like those books for very different reasons from the reasons why I like them? 

In the end, there is no wrong way to look at art--or books--and there's no wrong reason for liking or disliking any artistic book. The very things I love about Pre-Raphaeliteism are also often a source of criticism. I love the readily apparent symbolism; critics say it is too heavy-handed. I love the beauty; critics say the art does not lie in the beauty. Likewise, some of my favorite books are criticized for the very things I love about them. My favorite childhood book is The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis because they were the first books that I read and realized that there was such a thing as symbolism and that a story could go far deeper than just the words on the page. This is probably the very thing that makes these books reviled by some--too evident symbolism. 

I'd love to know your thoughts on this subject. What art do you like, and does your artistic taste reflect your literary taste? What qualities in art--visual or literary--do you appreciate the most?


Sandy said...

I love beautiful and expressive, art that has vibrant colours as well as stark contrasts, deeps shadows set against bright and bold shades. I also love illustrative art, art that looks like scenes or settings from a story or alternate world as well as portraits. I especially love fantastical art as you say based off of mythology and folklore. Art about mermaids and princesses and unicorns and dragons.

My favourite kinds of books are fantasy and paranormal for all age groups and what makes me completely love a book is if it excels in having both an amazing cast of characters and wonderfully detailed world building.

Sallie Mazzur said...

I completely agree with your description of The Forest of Hands and Teeth. When I read the story, I had no idea it was about zombies, and it took me a while to figure it out. The way she called them "unconsecrated" definitely gave this zombie YA novel more elegance and beauty. The whole story was drawn so beautifully, but through words instead of pencil or paint. It's one of my favorite novels!

Angela Brown said...

Although I couldn't point out a Van Gogh from any other painting - mainly because I didn't venture into visual arts as I should have - I understand what is beautiful, engaging and alluring to me. Same goes for the written art. Some things, engage me more, like fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal where there are some contemporaries that can grab me just as well. I suppose I keep an open eye but tend to have an inclination for things that can take me away from the norm, from reality and provide my imagination with words to dance with.

SusieBookworm (Susanna) said...

The Pre-Raphaelites! I love them, too! I think it's mostly because of the Arthurian and medieval themes, though. :) Other than that, my favorite artworks are the gothic paintings by Caspar David Friedrich.

Leah (aka Mary_not_Martha) said...

I think this is my favorite post of the year!Now I understand my sudden draw to art even though I know little about it. Like good writing, you understand how the piece makes you feel and can share that with other people looking at the same thing.

kmckendry said...

I never thought about relating the art I like to the books I like. I'm going to have to think about whether there is a common thread in there.

I have always loved Monet. And Degas' sculpture of the Little Dancer is pure perfection.

Thanks for bringing this topic up.

HannahDanielleStewart said...

I love a painting that looks very similar to the Ophelia. It's called Ombria in Shadow.
What's funny is my artistic taste in completely different from my literary taste. I like classic art and modern/futuristic literature.

Alex said...

Maybe I'm unusual, but I'm not a big fan of paintings. I've never looked at a picture and been moved by it or more than faintly interested. The facts about it can interest me, and I can appreciated the skill of the painting or use of symbolism, but- merely as a piece of art- I remain unaffected.

My favourite books are fantasy: so perhaps the element of wanting something mythical or fantastical is more important. But then scenes from Greek legends or myths don't interest me much either. But there is something interesting to note.

I'm not a hugely visual reader. I like to know how someone looks, what the lighting is, the surroundings, the clothes; all that jazz. But I never actually see it without trying, except occasionally.

When it comes to visual art, the only things I like are some photographs and the occasional sculpture. This one ( of cupid I saw in Amsterdam in February, and no picture can capture that look of menace on his face and the inscription of 'Whoever you are, this is your master - He is, he was or he will be' at the base sends tingles up my spine. I'm usually affected by art, but this is feeling I couldn't capture.