What makes a story a story and other thoughts at the Tate Modern

Untitled Painting by
Untitled Painting (1965) by Michael Baldwin

As I was walking through the Tate Modern, I came upon “Untitled Painting” (1965) by Michael Baldwin, which is a work with a mirror attached to a canvas. The description noted that historically painting has often been referred to as window to the world, a perspective captured within the frame. However, the mirror in this piece shifts the gaze of the window, revealing the viewer in the act of viewing rather than an image the artist made themselves. In addition to being the viewer, you also become the subject of the painting as well.

As I stood observing myself, now the living and temporary subject of the painting, I started to think about the nature of art and the artists who create it. Since it’s been years since I’ve taken an art history class and I don’t tend to speak critically of art, bear with me as I may misinterpret some things.

One of my primary thoughts was that art, and primarily forms of modern art, takes a certain amount of guts to pull off. By this, I mean having enough confidence in yourself as an artist to be able to break, sometimes drastically, with artistic tradition. Art history is full of these breaks with tradition, such as with Impressionism and later styles, such as Cubism, Surrealism, Minimalism, Pop Art, and others, as well as digital media and video art.

It’s not enough to simply stick a can of soup or a toilet on a pedestal and say, This is art. In addition to having the guts to declare This is art, you also have to be able to convince others to accept it. Andy Warhol, for example, would have been laughed out of existence if he tried to present his Pop Art decades earlier. A part of this confidence is in being able to offer an interpretation of one’s own art, a kind of story that allows others to understand and accept and this acceptance is assisted quite a bit by curators and critics. (I would love to read an article on the co-creation of art based on interaction between subject and viewer, if anyone knows of any.)

But it starts with an artist confident enough in their own expression to be able claim a piece is art, even if the majority may at first disagree.

This lead me to thinking about how this same level of gutsiness could be applied to writing. I don’t mean this in the sense of the “Am I a real writer?” question that many young writers face, but more in the sense of how a writer can stretch the boundaries of what makes poems and stories function as poems and stories, just as visual artists are able to stretch the boundaries of their work (sculpture and paintings) in abstract and experimental ways to find new emotional and intellectual resonance and meaning.

The nature of the book itself can certainly be stretched. Physical books can be shaped with a variety of different bindings, such as accordion style books that stretch across entire rooms. They can be made with a multitude of materials outside of paper, from wood to cloth to plastic, and can have images and objects attached to its pages. The Griffin and Sabine series features envelopes with removable letters and I grew up loving pop-up books as a kid.

The ebook and internet have also shifted the nature of books by eliminating the need for paper, pages, and binding. The digital format allows for new ways of expression in books, allowing for interactive media (linking, images, gifs, videos) in a way the paper format simply does not permit. An excellent example of a publisher working with the electronic format to stretch the possibilities of stories is Zoetic Press, which publishes stories that allow readers to click through multiple points or view in a single storyline. They have also published new editions of classic works, such as Alice in Wonderland, which allows the reader to click over to reinterpretations of the text by current poets and authors as they read along. (Zoetic has an app that you can download for the iPad, and soon the iPhone,with beautiful book covers and story formatting.)

I think you could also look at text-based internet games and representing stories in an interactive format, in more of a “choose your own adventure” style.

However, I wonder how what makes a story a story or a poem a poem could be stretched even further. For example, in taking a note from minimalist art, could I put a single word on a page and call it a novel, in the same way an artist can take a single color and fill a canvas and it’s a painting? I don’t think I can. And I don’t think it’s just a matter of not having enough chutzpa to do it. It’s more a matter of the different in the kinds of tools and materials used to shape the different kinds of art forms.

My friend wrote recently about looking for the equivalent of a pixel (the smallest part of a digital images) for a story:

“What’s the smallest meaningful part of a story? It’s not the individual word, because words only take on meaning in relation to one another. I can say the word “bark,” but with no other context, you don’t know whether it’s a noun or a verb. Even as a noun, it could refer to a sound made by an animal, or the covering of a tree, or a type of boat.”

While visual art is based in the visual, meaning and expression can be inferred from a single color or a single object alone, words require additional words interacting with each other in order shape meaning. (As an side, one could argue that words are required on some level to allow much of modern art to be art, as it is sometimes the interpretation or story presented by the artist or critic that allows viewers to buy-in to the acceptance of the piece of art. I’ve seen this happen in my own experience as reading the explanation has changed my perception and interest in a piece of art through the story presented.)

So, experimental writing requires more layering of words in order to still function as poetry or fiction. I’ve seen poetry stretched in experimental ways with beat poetry and post-modern poetry, as well as visual poetry, which folds words one on top of the other, overriding textual meaning in favor of the visual element (though I think it sometimes becomes less of a poem than a drawing at a certain point). Other examples, include erasure or blackout poetry, in which most of the text of an existing work is erased or painted over with the remaining words forming the poem, as with Mary Roach’s A Little White Shadow and Austin Kleon’s Newspaper Blackout.

The only experimental novel I can think of is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, which interweaves a variety of “found” texts to form a complex storyline.

I know these are just a bunch of jumbled thoughts without much a conclusion. I suppose that I haven’t come to any sort of conclusion and I’m not sure there is one. The nature of all art forms continues evolving, and I’m curious to see how things will continue to develop.

I would love to learn what you think about what makes art art or a story a story in the comments below.