In conversation with Devin today, I realized that my current aesthetic is largely based on a “complexity = depth/density/richness/skill/value (=good)” mindset. Probably influenced by (and or influential upon) my years of listening to metal. Whatever the reasons, I am much more comfortable praising texts (here used in the most broad sense of “text,” i.e. any work of art) that are multilayered or dense. Partially it’s just sheer respect for a) talent and b) effort. Partially it’s because I know how to analyze a multilayered piece: strip apart the layers, decode all the different things that are going on, and put the pieces back together and see how they interact with each other. It’s what I’ve been doing with Mega Man; it’s what I do with Chris Ware. It’s what I did with Bach, that one time.
The problem is that this is a pretty limiting aesthetic. It seems naïve to me now. Obviously, I have appreciated and do appreciate works that are profoundly simple, or simply profound, or whatever. I can admire the emotion in a single curved line of a cartoon face, or the elegance of a melody, or the color balance of a design, or the look of a typeface, or the phrasing of a line of poetry, or the profundity of a statement. But I don’t have the tools to explain why, and I think that makes me uncomfortable.
I also secretly wonder whether it wouldn’t be better, maybe, to read a beautifully-phrased line of poetry, in a well-designed typeface, as part of a well-balanced design, spoken by an elegantly-drawn cartoon face, stating a profound truth… perhaps even while hearing a beautiful melody. And if that isn’t so, then I’d like to figure out why.
It is true that different aspects of a work can often work at cross purposes. The beauty of a writer’s phrasing can distract (or detract) from the content of his/her work. An intricate comics page that takes you 30 minutes to read will probably lose any sense of urgency that the story may have been building toward. But shouldn’t it be possible, for a capable enough creator, to anticipate such interactions and actually work with them? That is, for the piece’s form to be perfectly suited to its function, and vice versa? Clearly it’s not the case that every combination (of form and function, or combination of different aspects of form) is advantageous. But I’m still not able to dispel the notion that More Is (or at least Could Theoretically Be) Better.
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In writing this, I realized that I read texts differently than I do comics, visual art, and music. Warren Ellis has written before that music feels like is the closest medium to comics. I suppose I see what he means, in a way. Text seems inherently different from visual and audial media because there’s no sensory component to the reading experience – or at most, a very very tiny component (like, controlling the reader’s reaction by controlling the spacing on a page).
But in general, the visual form the text takes matters almost not at all, especially in prose. In some types of prose it seems that the goal is almost a stylelessness – so that there are as few barriers as possible to complicate the process of getting the ideas into your head. To get back on topic a bit: it seems that when you read a text, everything is cerebral. Everything is ideas. Whereas the sensual arts, the audiovisual (possibly also kinaesthetic?) arts, are fundamentally rooted in some kind of concrete thing. At this point in the conversation I would be gesturing with my hands a lot. Both visual art and music feel like things I can visualize in the air in front of me, things that I can gesture with my hands to talk about.
I do think the cerebral/concrete distinction is real. But maybe some of this other stuff… Maybe the reason I can visualize music is because I’m used to doing so. As David Schiff tried to impress upon me, the way I think about music is almost entirely dependent upon the way I’ve been taught to think about music, by various cultural influences. I’ve seen videogame music represented as diagrams and scores and waveforms and codes, so I can visualize it in all of those ways. I surely have a completely different conception of music than does, say, an Indian tabla player, or a Tuvan throat singer, or a West African drummer.