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?

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