Artistry vs Accessibility

It’s 2 AM, and that means that it’s time for me to write a blog entry, because obviously the smart thing to do is staring at a screen minutes before going to bed.

Anyway, to preface this whole thing: everything I’m going to ramble about is purely my opinion, based on nothing but my own observations. I add this disclaimer because, as I mentioned last time, I get pretty annoyed when I read writing tips and stuff like it. So, for the hypothetical reader who has the same hangups: there are no wrong ways to write, regardless of what anyone else may say.

With that out of the way, let’s dive into this. Earlier tonight, I was watching a Youtube video about transitions in music, specifically in Final Fantasy Advance Tactics. It was really interesting and went pretty deep into the theory behind the transitional sections. Of course, most of it went completely over my head considering I know nothing about music theory, but that isn’t the point.

I also watched a video, on a different channel, about the music in the movie Midsommar. I haven’t seen the movie (and likely won’t), but the explanation of some the scenes and how the music interacted with those scenes to help set the tone was intriguing.

At this point, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with writing. Well, in both of these videos it struck me that, while very artistic, these kinds of things would fly right over the heads of many people, leading those people to dismiss them. Especially in the case of the Final Fantasy music, the transitional sections sounded like noise to me, even with the sheet music on screen and someone clearly explaining why it was structured that way.

With the Midsommar video, it wasn’t that clear-cut, but many of the analyses given as to how the music sounded and how it contributed to the eerie feel didn’t really hit home with me. Not because I disagreed, but because to me, it sounded like standard horror movie fare: unsettling strings with a vaguely ominous undertone.

Essentially, then, to me as an utter noob in the subject of musical theory, the genius of these soundtracks simply isn’t apparent. I have too little knowledge of the underlying theory to truly appreciate what the artists were going for, and so I dismiss it as either noise or background music.

And, honestly, I often feel the same with other kinds of art. When I’m in a museum of modern art, I usually find that none of the works really resonate with me.

For instance, I once came across a wooden bowl that looked like it would cost about a buck at IKEA, if I’m being generous, but which was apparently art despite having been made with a machine literally built to make wooden bowls, because the artist operating the machine despised wood. I’m sure there’s something very symbolic in that, but to me, it’s a fugly bowl.

In that same museum, there was a collection of things that looked like the kind of ashtrays a very bored five-year-old might have made for Mother’s Day in school. I can’t even remember the story behind those, but it was of similar grandeur to the wooden bowl.

But don’t think I’m only disdainful about music and sculptures. No, I have opinions on paintings as well. Take Mondriaan, the guy of the squares in primary colors. The guy was a really good artist. His realistic works from his early years were seriously nice. Then, he went full artist and decided that straight lines and colored panels were the height of artistry, culminating in his magnum opus Broadway Boogie Woogie, which, to put it mildly, I think is an absolute eyesore.

And now, we finally arrive at my own little niche to continue the blasphemy. Literature. I haven’t read many classics. I’ve tried a few, but I never got all that far, either in English or Dutch. People more knowledgeable than me assure me of the literary merits of these works, yet there’s always something that puts me off them.

In Brave New World, for instance, it was the jaunty tone of the narration. I know that’s part of the book’s vibe, but it certainly doesn’t vibe with me.

War and Peace…do I even need to say more than that? That book is as dense as your average neutron star.

A Dutch one then, De Avonden. My Dutch teacher in high school said that if we were going to read that book, we should do it in the final ten evenings of the year. I still intend to do that one year (maybe even this year), but the book is just so…dull. And the same goes for every book I’ve ever had to read in either Dutch or English class. I love to read, but I never bothered to finish any of those books, if I could be arsed to even begin on them.

Looping back all the way to music now (yeah, you’re in for the long haul with this kind of blog post) I’ll address the kind of music I do like, and then work down to sculptures, paintings, and, finally, books.

My musical style is pretty eclectic, containing stuff ranging from emo pop-punk to euphoric trance, but no matter what genre of music I’m listening to, there are some common elements. I love music with clear melodies. Euphoric trance usually has synth melodies on repeat, while emo pop-punk has choruses with melodies that will easily get stuck in your head.

I also love some reverb on those melodies, which is, again, common in euphoric trance, as well as on a lot of punk/rock/guitar-y music in backing melodies.

In sculptures, I like realism. The sort of stuff that some people, both in ancient times and modern ones, can do with marble or similarly hard types of stone are amazing. There are plenty of examples of statues that look like they’re almost liquid, as if the fabric of the gowns is the softest silk, while in reality it’s made of stone.

For paintings, it’s the color palette that I enjoy. If someone manages to paint a sunset over a meadow, with some trees, and manages to get the lighting exactly right so that you can almost feel that sun’s warmth, then it’s a fantastic painting.

And books? In books I like clear, yet subtle motifs. I like ‘mirroring’ scenes in various places of the books, giving ironic callbacks or closing off certain subplots within the story. I like a faster pace, with relatively simple language most of the time to keep the focus firmly on the characters and their actions.

I like scenes which derive their power from their implications, and no scene demonstrates that better for me than the final confrontation between Harry Potter and Voldemort in Deathly Hallows. If you haven’t read it at this point and still plan to, spoilers are ahead.

The final confrontation takes place in the Great Hall, and consists of Harry and Voldemort circling each other while Harry is calling him out on all the things he screwed up. Voldemort, of course, doesn’t listen. Avada Kedavra meets Expelliarmus, and Voldemort dies. Unlike what the movie shows you, though, he is explicitly described as falling over like a puppet whose strings had been cut, hitting the floor with a ‘mundane finality’.

And that one moment is so incredibly powerful not because of what happened, but because of what it represents. Voldemort’s entire character is defined by his disgust of everything normal and common about himself. He hates his own name and creates an alias. He plays up his wizard ancestry. He collects relics of famous wizards. He makes more Horcruxes than anyone ever has, because he is the greatest wizard to ever live…and yet, he dies like any other man. He just falls over, and that’s the end of it, killed by his own inability to admit that maybe there was a kind of magic of which he knew nothing, and condemned to a fate worse than death by his inability to feel any remorse.

The scene is strengthened further by the fact that no other fights are going at the time, and that everyone in the Great Hall is watching. Earlier, Voldemort had killed Harry in the Forest, away from any prying eyes but his closest Death Eaters. Harry, conversely, kills Voldemort in full sight of everyone, good guys and bad guys alike. A mirror that, one last time, shows the ultimate differences between Harry and Voldemort.

The movie, of course, ruins all of this by making it an epic showdown and having Voldemort disintegrate into ashes, destroying all the low-key symbolism and power in the scene. Yes, it looks cooler, but it completely misses the point of what that scene represented.

And now, after a lot of rambling, I’ve finally arrived at the actual point of this post. As you’ve seen, I often favor straightforward and clear over artistic and obtuse. This is true even in books. But, when straightforward and artistic mix in a subtle way, as they do in Deathly Hallows, I tend to love the resulting combination more than either of its parts.

I mostly try to write simple and straightforward myself, but I do like adding some subtle symbolism in my work as well. From time to time, though, it’s a lot of fun to go fully pretentious, and write something that’s just purely artistic. Heavy on the purple prose, accentuating things that have no business being accentuated, being very floaty in the narration because all that really matters is evoking one specific emotion…in myself.

That is the big problem with being artistic to the max. It’s artistry that comes from the deepest core of your being. It translates something ephemeral, something ethereal, into something concrete, something meant to last. And the thing is, it works. The one who made that artwork, be it a painting, piece of music, or work of literature, will be able to perfectly recall the mental images and emotions they felt at the time they created it…but no one else can.

No one else can understand such a work in the way it was truly meant to be understood, because they didn’t make it. I recently read a short story that seemed to be just such a story. Clearly based on personal experiences, meaning the descriptions are vivid, but not meant for me, or anyone else. I inferred that it was something like that because it reminded me a lot of something I wrote myself, ages ago. Anyone else reading that bit, which is only around half a page long, would just look at it and think it’s a mildly pretentious description of a spring evening. When I look at it, it evokes the exact same images and feelings it did when I wrote it.

And I think that this is my problem with a lot of artworks in museums, or specific pieces of music. They were made by people expressing their own emotions in ways that made sense to them, but those emotions can only ever work for them. The hottest take I have in this entire rant is this: I think that anyone who claims to ‘get’ certain artworks (like the Broadway Boogie Woogie) is talking out of their ass. No one except Mondriaan gets that work. Oh, it can certainly inspire you, give you associations of your own you can work with, but you can never understand it, even if the reasoning behind the piece is written right next to it on the wall, which in a museum it most likely will be.

Those museum texts always seem to say stuff like ‘it evokes fear/misery/happiness/joy’, as if that’s obvious to someone who knows art. Bullshit. The text says that because someone asked the artist, and that’s what the artist replied with. But the only person in the world who truly feels those emotions is that artist themselves.

I rarely feel what the pieces intend me to feel. In many cases, I feel nothing at all. When I do feel something, those feelings are my own. They might align to a certain degree with the feelings of the artist when they made the work, but what I feel has nothing to do with what the artist intended.

There is something called ‘death of the author’, which holds that that the views a writer has of his own works are no more or less valid than those of anyone else. In many cases, I agree with that. Stories written to entertain (as most of mine are), or even stories that are a mix of entertainment and artistic elements, can certainly be viewed in this way.

But when it comes to the ‘true’ art, the stuff that is superficially incomprehensible, the ‘death of the author’ loses its appeal. You can argue the point until the cows come home, but certain works were made with the express intention of capturing the artist’s own emotions. Whatever you glean from the work is fine and dandy, but it’s also wrong.

As a launching board for new ideas and insights, all interpretations are valid, but the real interpretation is, and always will be, the one the creator gave to the work when they made it. No pseudo-intellectual windbag can change that by claiming their own interpretation is equally valid.

I may seem a bit defensive here, and that’s because I am. See, I know what it’s like to write something like that. You might share it with the world in a vain attempt to allow them to share in your own raw experiences, because there is no purer way to express an emotion than to record it in a way that makes sense only to you, but no one else can get it, even if you explain it.

If those people then start claiming that their own interpretations of the work are just as valid as yours, they’re essentially saying that they know you better than you know yourself. No, jackass, you don’t.

My regular stories with their subtle symbolism? Those are open to interpretation, because my main intention with them is to entertain. That’s why I want to keep the symbolism subtle: if someone wants to ignore it, they should be able to. Go wild and interpret the words however you want.

My half-page ramble about spring nights? It’s mine. You can read it, but any interpretation you have of it will be less real than mine. No, that’s not the right way to phrase it. The emotions you feel when reading it are real, and the ideas and inspirations it might give you are real, but they are not the intended meaning of the words. That meaning is known and knowable only to me, because what you see there is a representation of my emotions, and no one else has those.

It’s like a language you don’t speak, but which might be similar to yours in some ways. You’ll recognize some words and be able to construct the general gist, but you will never understand the true meaning, especially since the words themselves were never the message. They’re an in-joke, and only the person who wrote them has the context. It means something different than what is apparent on the surface, no matter how close you may come to it, and whatever meaning you extract simply isn’t the real one.

Well, it’s 3:45 now. I think I’ve rambled on long enough. See you next time.

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