August 25, 2009

A Little Philosophy, but Mostly Art: ( A Conversation. Part 1 of ?)

I want to engage you, my few readers, in a conversation. Joel, you especially are invited.

Leah likes Virginia Woolf. She likes that style of writing, where you're in the head of the person, hearing their thoughts, listening in on intimate observations of insignificant details which add up to some indefinable Big Thing. Woolf gets under your skin, slowly, I think.

I can see where Leah is coming from.

I don't tend to get much from those sorts of authors.

Leah and I were discussing this over coffee this morning.

I am, I'm realizing, much more interested in the external. "What are people doing?," not -"who are they?"

I think you judge a man by what he does, not what he thinks or feels. And so in my fiction I drift toward action and dialogue. Houellebecq, Steinbeck, and Chesterton all write primarily about what people do. I like that.

And I like ideas. I need the writing to be about something.

Bergman said the problem with most film-makers is that they've got nothing to say. I agree. I watched Wendy and Lucy recently. I hated it, even though I understand why the people involved thought it was worth doing. There was no substance, just style. So I was bored.

I need an idea.

So I like action and ideas. I'll take substance over style any day.

How do you guys feel about this? And not just in novels, but in art generally. How does it affect your own creativity?

I'm looking for dialogue, not argument. But I'd like to steer away from "I just feel like..." statements, and steer towards "I feel like _____, because..." statements. Lean towards reason.

If no one bites for a couple days, I won't mind. I promise. Don't respond out of obligation, please.


Trev said...

I've found that I am relatively selfish in my experience with most mediums - if I can't find myself in the art, I can't relate and lose interest rapidly.

For example, everyone raved to me about how wonderful and clever the movie "babel" was. But I just couldn't find myself in any of those characters - In fact, I found them to be a little silly - so I hated it.

So I guess what I'm saying is that, like yourself, I need substance over style. It's just that in my case - it doesn't feel like real, tangible substance if I'm not feeling like I'm a part of it. Does that even make sense?

Jon Coutts said...

In regard to Trev's comment, I'd differ and say that one of the great things about art (along with seeing parts of one's own experience related) is the opportunity to encounter the other. Babel was a masterpiece on both levels, I thought.

In regard to the post, I'd begin by copping out of the dilemma and saying that there is a place for pure ideas and style, and there is also a time and place for just offering a plot and substantive action.

But by and large the best and most lasting art will combine them, because, well, life combines them.

Ideas without situations, without a context, are meaningless. Plots and situations which try to just be, without trying to say anything, are 1) naively self-decieved, because it is (nearly?) impossibile to do so , and 2) even if achieved, is not as alive; i.e. as valuable, compelling, important, or enjoyable.

Now, I should say that there is a whole genre of literature, music, and film which does a good job of simply "portraying reality". I like this, as I said re: Trev above. I appreciate it for what it evokes and reveals in myself, and I like it for showing me the other, for presenting me with other perspectives. But even there I've said what must be said---it isn't just about telling a story, there are ideas presented as well.

Even the most "realistic", "message free" narrative, is by definition presenting an idea, perhaps it would be something akin to materialism (all that is is what we touch and see and sense: what happens). By aiming to avoid narration or commentary on life it inevitably does so. And the most trippy, idea-laden stylistic piece is still bound to its form, to the story told within it, and the relatability of that story to the viewer. It may try to "transcend" situations and matter and events, like Buddhism, but at the end of the day there is still a person sitting there living and breathing and responding.

I am not sure that addresses what you are getting at, so steer it where you like Matthew, but those are my thoughts (and preferences).

joel said...

I think predominantly I would argue that art must express something and that expression is for someone else. Without this I think the artist is in danger of doing such-and-such for the sake of it. Thus, stylistic heavy art is boring to me, like that movie about the town which is all filmed obviously on a set without effort for construction.

Regarding Leah’s value of internal and psychological writing, I agree; but again if or when it is done for its own sake then I am uninterested. I feel like life has enough ‘normal’ to it, I certainly do not want to encounter more of it in art, especially when it is there for its own sake or for the sake of formal exploration.

If a guy makes a movie about a guy walking down a street and that is all then why do I watch it? I am a guy and I have walked down streets before, so unless the artist is trying to ‘do’ something with his forms, I am usually uninterested in experiencing them; especially if he defends his art with some line like ‘what I was trying to do here is such-and-such with the form because I think we need to be bored more often’ and so on.

People can do what they want but I think most artists who get hung up on formal-aims to their art are coping out; failing to really engage or taking a safe route.

Boyda said...

Wow, I have SUCH strong opinions about all of this. I had to hold back yesterday to see what else would be said, and now I have even more to say - great. I'm totally daunted by the task of expressing myself coherently right now.

I would take Jon's argument slightly further to say that that "pure style" is absolutely impossible - evasion of context is context itself, and there is a story behind every work of art, even Rothko's experiments with color. Even if that story is just 'Rothko wanted to create a myriad of stories, a hundred thousand stories, one for every viewer," that is a contextualized, historicized story.

I'm sure the same goes for art which attempts substance without style - Matthew, your Crooked Trees have a very well-defined psychology and depth beyond the everyday actions. I basically think you're setting up a fallacious opposition, and I suppose the question then is what degree of each would you like to be explicitly stated in the literature.

Take Virginia Woolf. I think you do her a great injustice. In no way is her art just "I feel like" statements or a confused mass of insignificant details which the reader must somehow interpret. Big Ben tolls noon precisely half-way through Mrs. Dalloway (is that style or substance?).

I was also going to quote a passage from The Waves to demonstrate Woolf's perfect marriage of style and substance, but I've decided this comment is already too long, and I know getting too caught up in Woolf Apologetics is to sidestep the issue. Perhaps I would be writing an entirely different response if I didn't think you were misinterpreting Woolf.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...


I know what you mean about finding yourself in the work. I mean, it’s no big surprise that
we love the films/novels we do. We see ourselves in the characters in many of them. Obviously there’s more to it than that, but I think that’s a big part of it. This point is fairly obvious, but I do think it gets underemphasized sometimes simply because it’s staring us in the face.

But what Jon says about the ‘other’ is bang-on too. You have to be able to get outside yourself.

I’m glad you’re speaking up, Trev!

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Yes, this dilemma is false. It’s not style vs. substance. And sometimes style IS substance, and vice-versa. But when push comes to shove I’ve found myself having to choose one over the other sometimes. Even just in small ways. Like, for instance, as a film-maker I’m trying to figure out if I’m going to insist on the integrity of my image, or the integrity of my scene/idea. I’m drifting away from the image. If the lighting is bad, but the idea’s intact -I can deal with that a lot easier than good lighting with a poorly-communicated idea. I’d rather have both, but sometimes it’s not possible. Art is rarely, if ever, perfect; so for an artist the question of “where are you going permit mistakes?” can be really important. That's maybe a little more precisely what I'm trying to get at with my entry.

I like what you said when you wrote,

“Plots and situations which try to just be, without trying to say anything, are 1) naively self-decieved, because it is (nearly?) impossible to do so, and 2) even if achieved, is not as alive; i.e. as valuable, compelling, important, or enjoyable.”


“By aiming to avoid narration or commentary on life it inevitably does so.”

I agree.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...


First, I think ‘Dogville’ -the movie you mentioned- is a terrible example for the point you’re making. But that’s neither here nor there.

I think I agree with what you’re saying about art done for its own sake. And yes, life does have enough normal in it. That’s what Hitchcock’s talking about when he says, “Pure cinema is life with the dull bits taken out.” It’s why we truly shouldn’t want to watch films of paint drying.

Of course the danger is if we think it’s just a film about a guy walking, so we write it off -when actually, if we’d viewed it with an open mind, it’s got more to it than that. But you know this already.

Finally, I agree wholeheartedly that too many artists hide behind style, precisely because their substance is shallow. Wim Wenders once complained about how Hollywood just keeps polishing its films until they get shinier and shinier, instead of paying attention to the problems below the surfaces of the films. I like that description.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...


“SUCH strong opinions.”

Ha ha.

I loved reading your words.

First, you’re absolutely right, as was Jon, in pointing out that substance vs. style is a “fallacious opposition.” And yes the real question is “what degree of each would you like to be explicitly stated in the literature”? Absolutely. That’s precisely where I’m trying to go with this.

I’m figuring myself out as an artist, and trying to decide to what degree I want to value substance and style. In my religious upbringing substance was valued much more highly than style. For example, “Why spend that money on the church building? Give it to the poor.” That sort of thing. I like style more than that. The main difference between a good novel and a philosophical treatise is STYLE, I think.

Anyways, I’m trying to determine where I stand on these things, and am hoping that by talking through this with you guys on sinnersbleeders I can think through the issue enough to reach a better conclusion.

Re: Woolf. Yikes! I stepped in way over my head. All I know of Woolf is what Leah and other acolytes have told me, what I’ve picked up from reading about her, the time I read 50 pages of ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ and respected it but didn’t like it, and -yes, of course- watching ‘The Hours.’

I in no way meant to link Woolf with “I feel like” statements, or “a confused mass of insignificant details which the reader must somehow interpret.” I respect her as an artist very much, and am absolutely not trying to denigrate her work. But she does have a style which leaves me, personally, untouched. So far. Later this year I’m planning on reading some Woolf short stories, or maybe ‘To the Lighthouse,’ and I’ve promised Leah I will do it with a very, very open mind.

As a parting shot, I will say that just because there is a story behind every work of art, doesn't mean the stories are all equally interesting. Not that you claimed they were, though, now that I think of it.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...


Respond how ever you want, but the main thing I'm aiming for now, after this first round of dialogue, is an understanding of to what degree you guys value substance and to what degree style, and why. Not because there is a "right" degree of each, but because I think just talking about it can be beneficial in understanding ourselves as creative people. So, like I wrote to Jon, I'm asking, where will you permit mistakes in your art?

Leif said...

I was reading an article recently in a writing magazine about external versus internal movement in books. The author said that when you finish your piece you should go over it with two highlighters. One for any external things like fighting, conversation, major events, etcetera, and the other for internal struggles, thoughts, and emotional changes.

According to the author, earlier works were plagued with internal events, and barely had any external. It was a problem for readers who found that the story "never went anywhere." Now the opposite is true, which seems to be the influence of cinema and television. It would appear that most writers are now writing as though the book were a movie.

The conclusion of the article was, of course, that there should be an even amount of both in a book to make it successful, but this is hard in a world where most writers try to abide by a rule called, "show, don't tell," which the author of the article calls a horribly bad idea.

Ramble, ramble. I think it makes sense to want both in a story. I want to see characters grow and change, either overcoming their faults or succumbing to them. That makes me interested in the characters. As long as they are involved with something mildly interesting, I'll likely stick with it if they are having an internal struggle as well. I don`t like the cardboard characters who remain static throughout the tale.

That being said, I'll completely turn on that and say I don't want to read a book which isn't about something I like in the first place. The story can be filled to the brim with character growth and struggle, but if the story is about several conneticut farmers trying to make payment before the bank forecloses, I don't want to read it.

You asked, "Where will you permit mistakes in your art?"

I'm no artist. When I need to draw something, I'm content if it comes close to looking like what I need it to. When I made little movies in college, I simply wanted to have the plot get shown on the screen, and there was nearly zero style or editing or whatever. As a dramatist, the plays I wrote and directed were definitely more substance than style, because we had no money to do anything else. If we had, I would definitely have wanted things to look the best they could. I think that in areas like that, if you are confident in the substance, you would want to have the best style you could to pair it with.

As for writing, I don't know how the question can be applied properly. I don't care too much what my book looks like when it hits the shelves, whether it is soft or hardcover, if the publishers make me put some crazy artist's conception of the world on the cover, or if they let me have a much more intriguingly plain cover. Sure it would be nice to have total control over that, but really once you get into a book, it doesn't matter what the cover looks like, and that is what counts here I think. Internal errors in writing would seem to me to be things like grammar and spelling, which I think should only be left in if characters who are speaking or thinking happen to be less educated.

Ramble, ramble. Sorry for such a long post, but I missed the first part of the discussion, and I'm greedy for air-time.

joel said...

I think I would be so bold as to argue for the necessity that form ought to serve substance.

You have been using your term ‘underlined’ a lot lately and I think this is a good enough initial proof.

I think if the form is distracting from the substance (the expression of the art) then it is used poorly.

Unless that ‘distraction’ is part of the expression; but here, one has the form of their art working for the substance, just once removed, don’t they?

And I think ‘Dogville’ is an excellent example for what I am saying.

Jeff said...

Well, I don't comment much on here, but I'll give it a shot. I agree with Joel that form ought to serve substance. I even feel like the form, or style, is dependent on the substance.

If only substance is taken into consideration, then a form/style with naturally follow. Or course this works in reverse as well, but I'm not sure it is to the same degree.

John Cassavetes said he was only interested in capturing human emotion when he was filming. That's how he made all of his decisions regarding shots and edits. It was always with the substance of the scene in mind. But anyone who has watched a Cassavetes movie knows that he has a very distinct style.

Is there a point there? Forgive me if there isn't.

So where would I permit mistakes? In style, definitely. Because a mistake in the substance will be a mistake in the style as well.

By the way, it kills me to say that, because I am always tempted to break my own rule. And I prefer style.

Boyda said...

Have to say that I respectfully agree with Matthew about Dogville.

Also, sorry Matthew, I realized after I wrote that that you were referring to our responses, not Woolf, when you said to avoid "just feel like" statements!
And I agree with you - not all stories should be told.

But I totally agree with Joel that form "distracting" from the substance may be part of the expression, and honestly, I love that. I would like to see a movie about paint drying. So if I were to choose, I probably appreciate style ("internal") more - likely because I think style can handle the simple, speak-able things of life better than substance ("external"), which tends to, as you've said Matthew, become over-shined to the point of emptiness. But really, I like the internal to react to the external, for there to be a continual interplay.

I love what Beckett's earlier novels do with style and substance - he reacted against Woolf and Joyce and pulled the internal realm out into the external, and ended up writing things like "Murphy moved the table and then the chair and then the table and then the chair and opened the door and closed the door and moved the table back to where it started." I think Beckett recognized that to deal with these issues is a too-delicate balancing act which involves continual renegotiation, and that's the way art should be.
If that makes sense.
So I think it's good that you're fostering discussion, Matthew. And I will permit mistakes in my art as much as possible, because art is and should be perpetually unstable.

Colin Toffelmire said...

"a too delicate balancing act which involves continual renegotiation..."

winner, best phrase of the day.

This is a fascinating question Matt. I've been thinking about it a little and it makes me think about the way that sociolinguists describe language. Halliday especially suggests that language has three big categories: relational, informational, and textual.

Carrying this over to literature (and other art by analogy) perhaps we're talking about three related categories, and not an opposition of two. Stories that connect us relationally to characters are one kind. Stories that present an idea with which we interact is another. Stories that are "pure-style" is a third. Every story would involve some kind of combination of these factors it seems, with one or two in prominence perhaps.

Interestingly enough, when I really think about it it's the textual component that really engages me in literature. I like a strong plot, I like interesting and engaging themes, I like characters that capture my imagination. But what I really love, is a well turned phrase. This is the only reason I read Hemingway. His plotting is often a little dull, and his characters (especially his protagonists, with the exception of the old fisherman) are almost always unmitigated pricks. I don't even like his themes or message most of the time. But holy hell, can that man *write*. His prose is so wonderfully engaging, so captivating that I read him even though I think he's a prat.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Keep the comments coming, everyone, please. I'm in the process of moving, so I won't be able to respond to this 2nd round 'till Saturday or Sunday. I'm thrilled to have this dialogue happening here.

Jon Coutts said...

Where will I permit "mistakes"? Probably I'd say style, but there are so many places to go now to deal with a topic or idea (substance) that if the style is crap, unless I have another reason to invest myself (the "take" on the idea is of interest to me, or there is some other twist) in it and forgive it for being crappy or self-glorifying (two ends of the spectrum: art for the artist's sake and art that makes you cringe for even honouring it with the word), I'll likely pass.

I think there is something important there. Style may be important now, more than ever, at being unique. Every story has been told, more or less. But not every angle, not every idea has been scoured for different nuances or perspectives and so on. For every person, were there the ability, there could be another version of "walking down the street". This I find fascinating. I realize that I only watch what I watch because on some level it appeals to ME, but I'm surprised to hear people imply here that they DON'T watch film to encounter the Other. But that's neither here nor there.

Point being, style becomes important to substance, and in that way serves it, I guess. But I imagine the more familiar we become with an art form the more demanding or at least more discerning we become regarding style. To the point that I think weighing heavily on style or form means choosing a certain crowd---the artistically aware, the artists---and to me that can become dangerously close to narcissistic navel-gazing and self-congratulation, although I'll qualify that by saying it is from this that some of the major breakthroughs in style will be born, and some things of substance said that might not have been said otherwise.

So I think there is a place for the style-emphasized art. It is mostly for the artists, though, I'd say, and effects culture at large by trickle down (the same way scholarly books eventually reach the people). I'm not sure how far I'm getting off course now so I'll stop there...

...except to say that style can grab me and say something new and wow me, but if there is no discernible substance whatsoever, I'm out.

Anonymous said...

here is another facet, effect, thing to do with style:

I watched an interview today related to "Fires on the Plain", that featured the idea that kon Ichikawa was never distributed because he had no uniform style. The content was there, and the style was there (in each film) but independently, not as a whole.

Because of this very eclectic approach, there is nothing to link films together, nowhere to begin understanding. No Stock film to have in collection, therefore no buyers. No way to understand?

What does this mean/say/imply about human beings and art? Apparently viewers were grabbed by style, but then wanted it to stay the same. When it changed, something went wrong.

There is a chance that I am making no sense.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

I've read everything. Carefully. Unfortunately, the move is dragging out my disconnection from the internet.

Weird to be offline for so long. I am finding it refreshing. Uh-oh.

It's gonna be a couple days maybe before I can get online at a cafe or something. Sorry guys.

I've copied and pasted your responsese, so I'll be crafting my response tonight.

I'm getting a lot out of this. Thanks everyone for approaching this with such serious-mindedness.

In a couple days...

Colin Toffelmire said...

To what degree does medium alter the answer or the way one approaches this question? Would any of you answer this question differently for film than for literature? I think I might. Which suggests that while the underlying idea is important, the framework in which it resides changes the artistic expression entirely.

Let me put it another way. Would a book about idea/theme X be essentially the same piece of art as a film about idea/theme X?