Theory of art

(Every now and then I have to write something decent to renew my license as a third-rate genius.)

As your writings have been a significant influence on my theory of art I would be grateful to hear your personal answer to the question ‘what is important?’


I’ve previously described poetry as “the profound expression of wisdom, where wisdom is a set of accurate mental models about the most important things in life (God, love, money, action, intellect, etc).” It’s a circular definition, but a clarifying one. Profundity can be taken to mean that the artistic expression packs as many implications into a digestible format as possible, like the way a superfood packs nutrients into a form with high bioavailability to human intestines. The art of art is to sense the wisdom that’s missing in human culture and understanding, as it stands, and to create it. The latter is done by speaking in the language of archetypes from the shared subconscious mind.

An artist’s message could be something as simple as landscape painting, which presents an idealized picture of nature with the important details highlighted to say “Appreciate the beauty in the natural world! Look at these bits! Go thou and do likewise!” What separates a landscape painting from a photograph is that most of the detail must be neglected as a matter of course. Only those parts which the artist was able to perceive and translate to a brush stroke make the cut. The message imparted by an impressively detailed landscape painting is “See how much the ideal human mind can perceive in the world.”

Now, I mentioned before that my theory of art is pragmatic and I should explain that. It’s because our senses are pragmatic. We don’t see a “chair”, we see a “thing for sitting”. The way we process information is based entirely on how it can be used. We even have a preprocessing structure between our eyes and our visual cortices that detects solid edges and adds emphasis to them–the real world as it impinges on our eyes is much “flatter” in reality than we perceive it to be. This is comparable to the outlines that are ubiquitous in visual art. Real objects don’t have outlines, but the nerves between our eyes and visual cortices add outlines. We can’t NOT see them even though they aren’t there, because outlines are essential to navigating a world of solid objects. So what’s the first thing we do when we draw? We outline.

Because of that, art must be more than representation of archetypes. What is important is not merely to see these archetypes, but to understand how to act. An example of this is the difference between static and dynamic posing.

Art doesn’t merely present the attributes of a type of thing, it presents the type’s behavior: what it values, lacks, and moves toward. In this sense there is no escaping “in medias res” storytelling in some form or another, and this is part of what makes art compelling. We don’t want to see pictures of a man having a brass ring, we want to see a picture of him reaching for it with every muscle and tendon in his body. Seeing these archetypes and their behaviors in simplified, pragmatic forms tells us how to expect them to act if we encounter them in the future. If the type pictured is something we identify with, the picture changes our expectation of how we ourselves act, molding our self-concept to be more in keeping with the ideal.

Because art is pragmatic, it is inescapably moralistic. This is a point that artists must strive to forget in practice, because intentional moralizing is at odds with the mind’s ability to tap into subconscious archetypes. It is inorganic, and is perceived as not genuine expression. Practicing artists recognize this fact, which is why they tend to have an allergic reaction to the idea that art must moralize. The key is that the morality must be so thoroughly internalized that the artist can’t NOT see it in the world. I’m bringing this up in support of an important corollary: the greatest art expresses mythical ideas, because mythical stories are the encapsulation of human wisdom about “wat do”.

Mythical stories are about those things we’ve been discussing: types of things, attributes and behaviors of those types, and how we should expect them to act. And these stories are told in the ways that are most digestible for human consumption, including fantastic elements, drama, strong emotions, superstitions, magical thinking, and so on. The best myth could not feel more real if we had dreamt it ourselves. (Super proud of that line 😁) The work of mythicists, and by extension great artists, is to present people with the dreams they should be having to come to terms with the things they need to understand. Those religions that emphasize that reality is dream-like are grasping at this idea of the collective unconscious-as-dreamtelling.

Now, I’ll make my final point on the theory of art, which is that the most useful (pragmatic) presentations of types and theory and morality and so on are those which “cut reality at the joints”. The metaphor of cutting at the joints comes from the idea of cutting a piece of meat along its natural joints to get the best cuts of meat the most easily. It’s a picture of how, presented with a particular problem, to get the best results by using best practices.

This is one reason why artistic expression must be extremely diverse and varied: we are going to be presented with many different kinds of problems in life, and following a diagram that isn’t specific enough or detailed enough for the problem at hand will produce poor results. Moralizers most often fail by treating particular problems as general ones. They may advise you to pray when the correct advice is to take the first derivative, set it to zero, and plug the values back into the original function to find the critical points.

Returning to the world of art, it may be something as simple as “This is a type of woman–Do not under any circumstances marry this type of woman.” In terms of importance, that sort of wisdom is pretty important. About a third of the book of Proverbs is dedicated to that subject. The Sorrows of Young Werther, as mentioned before, is a warning: “Don’t be that guy.”

In practice, an artist must focus intently on 1) what is missing and 2) how important it is. There will be an inherent tension between these concerns, because #1 factors into the intensity of feeling and #2 is a matter of wisdom and good judgment. Artists will be inclined to the former by sentimentality, but if they give in to this feeling entirely they will produce art treating problems so petty that their work is niche to the point of being useless. On the contrary, if they incline to the latter by an overabundance of conscientiousness, they will be repeating ideas that have already been expressed, everybody knows, and no one needs to hear again. The sweet spot is to find a subject that really sticks in your craw for no reason you can determine. This brings us to C.S. Lewis’s essay ” It All Began with a Picture”:

All seven of my Narnia books and my three science fiction books’, he said, began with seeing pictures in my head. At first they were not a story, just pictures. The Lion all began with a picture of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture had been in my head since I was about sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: ‘Let’s try to make a story about it’. At first I had very little idea how the story would go. But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it. I think I had been having a good many dreams of lions about that time. Apart from that, I don’t know where the Lion came from or why he came. But once He was there He pulled the whole story together, and soon He pulled the six other Narnia stories in after him.

As far as I can determine, all great artists and storytellers attribute their great works to this process. Something gets stuck in their craw, so they accept it as a counterfactual and begin filling in the details. The “what” comes first, as an inexplicable picture, and the supporting work is spent explaining it. This is the process of actualizing an inspiration.

If the picture stuck in your craw for reasons you can determine, that probably means you’re getting too ideological or into the realm of personal expression, which is artistic death. On the contrary, if you can’t figure out why it’s stuck in your craw it’s clearly a subject that your subconscious mind thinks is missing from existing human culture and understanding, and the fact that it arose in your mind as a picture means it’s emotionally salient enough to be important. (The latter is because thoughts and emotions which are thought and felt with overwhelming conviction rise up in the mind in an appropriately concise form of expression for simple lack of bandwidth in the conscious mind, which forces the expression into a profound form.)

We can look to Kentaro Miura for another well-developed example:

Miura:…Thus did I come up with the appearance of Guts. Now, where do things progress from there…? [laugh]
Interviewer: So his motivations and background came about later.
Miura: That actually is the most proper sequence. For instance, as long as Ultraman has that visual, the Spacium Ray, and you know he’s from Nebula M78, the rest follows along afterwards. I think such works built from a style can run for a long time. The contents and direction change to fit the times, but a good style will be inherited and loved forever. Once Guts’ style was decided, next came his interior. He’s a dark hero, so revenge makes for a good motivation. And prior to the reason for his revenge, I tried to think about in what manner he’d get his revenge.
Interviewer: Does that mean rather than delving into his mind, you thought about where things would lead?
Miura: Yes. At first I envisioned Guts as a hero who can get angry. Like Max in Mad Max or Kenshiro in Fist of the North Star. I focused on how to make him angry, how to make him get revenge, and how to effectively display his appearance and gimmicks, and what resulted after that struggle was the original Black Swordsman. At that point, there was no Band of the Falcon or anything [laughs].

Miura began with the story of the Berserk Protoype, and then created the Eclipse to explain why the protagonist in it is the way he is:


Miura: I didn’t especially have any teachers when it comes to manga, so I didn’t know what was proper. I had always been under the impression that a manga artist dreams up things that don’t exist in reality. So, I tried it, and realized it was proper. I was incorporating my own experiences and those close to me, so naturally there’d be feeling there and the lies would evaporate [laugh]. I think the Golden Age arc went well that way. And whenever I combine reality with imagination, I don’t view my own circumstances as being all that dramatic, so I suppose I was able to strike a good balance. I would do things like taking my high school manga buddies and dropping them into a mercenary band led by a guy who’s working toward some goal. But while I’m happy that it went well, the purpose of this arc was to give Guts a reason for revenge, so it occurred to me I’d made a bunch of really great characters and they were all going to die [laugh].
Interviewer: You knew from the start how it was going to end.
Miura: I knew the Eclipse was coming, so there truly was nowhere to run! Also, there’s a reason I made the Golden Age arc as long as it was. I felt dissatisfied with the so-called flashback scenes in a number of works. It’s typical to stick flashbacks in just as a short break in order to maintain the pace of a story, but I wanted to potently feel, from the bottom of my heart, the reason for Guts’ revenge and the basis of his character development. If the flashback lasts only a short time, it runs the risk of merely amounting to information. Since I’m the one drawing it, I need to make it more of a story you can invest in emotionally… and that’s how it ended up being sooo long [laugh].
Interviewer: But it’s because this happened that Guts’ anger comes through sufficiently.
Miura: I had to make something that readers would accept was enough to make anybody angry. Because of that, it came down to how dramatically and naturally I could depict Guts fully forming his precious bonds with people. For the relationship between Guts and Griffith, I’m using myself and my close friend and fellow manga artist Koji Mori (Suicide Island, etc.) as a model. Which one of us is Guts and which is Griffith switches from time to time, but I think it serves as a symbol of male friendship.
Interviewer: You put so much emotion into those characters, and when the Eclipse happens, they’re all gone. That must have left some scars on you as the artist.
Miura: I was emotionally invested in each character, so I felt more depressed than scarred. And the story went way down in popularity with the readers around the time of the Eclipse [laugh]. Many readers were furious that I’d do such a thing to the characters they liked. My editor at the time was concerned but also of the opinion that we’d just have to follow it through to the end. The point I had to pay attention to was making sure the flow of the story wasn’t completely severed with the Eclipse. That’s why I spared Casca. If she had died and the serialization had continued for a long time, I feared the reason for revenge would become something of the past; and if Guts were to establish new relationships, then his incentive would waver. It may seem calculating and unpleasant, but it’s because Casca’s by his side that he can never forget the Eclipse.

(This dynamic between Guts and his innermost self is what makes Berserk great art, and it’s why the comic declined into kitsch when Puck got sidelined into a physical comedy character.)

To finish this off, I’ll summarize by saying that art exists for the audience to make sense of a problem. It may be a problem they’ve had, are having, or vaguely anticipate they may have in the future, but it will be one where the art tells them how to cut it at the joints.

The simplest drawing of a person by a child can be understood to mean “how to see a person, illustrated by its salient attributes.”

About Aeoli Pera

Maybe do this later?
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Theory of art

  1. rillxn says:

    1. Bravo

    2. My deepest gratitudes

    3. Some comments:

    ‘Now, I mentioned before that my theory of art is pragmatic and I should explain that. It’s because our senses are pragmatic. We don’t see a “chair”, we see a “thing for sitting”.’

    Would you agree that our senses are relational as opposed to pragmatic? They inform how we ought to relate to the world as opposed to how to ‘harness’ the world for our prerogatives. This takes on even more dimension when other people are involved – we don’t think how to ‘use’ them but how best to ‘relate’ to them such that a meta set of desired objectives are met, many of which don’t expressly serve us, but serve a broader umbrella of values within which we operate. In this sense art is the presentation of ways to relate to the world. Great art helps you relate to the world with wisdom, patience, charity, inspiration, etc.

    ‘Because art is pragmatic, it is inescapably moralistic. This is a point that artists must strive to forget in practice, because intentional moralizing is at odds with the mind’s ability to tap into subconscious archetypes. It is inorganic, and is perceived as not genuine expression. Practicing artists recognize this fact, which is why they tend to have an allergic reaction to the idea that art must moralize. The key is that the morality must be so thoroughly internalized that the artist can’t NOT see it in the world.’

    This is the explanation behind ‘show, don’t tell’.

    In regard to Miura’s fixation on the character design for Guts, and Lewis’ image of the fawn, I have an extremely relevant anecdote. Some months ago, you posted your idea for a dystopian universe informed by a cobalt blue/clay-beige color scheme. I shared my own idea in the comments about a graphic novel/series I had been hashing out. That whole universe and narrative and cast of characters came from me trying to backward rationalize the way I visually designed the main character.

  2. fluxlux says:

    Despite having to navigate enemy territory (ie. a leftwing theatre kids environment), I’ve managed to stage my own mythically-dreamt works on their turf. It has the advantage for me to be ‘un-cancellable’ but the major caveat (the flip side I suppose), is that the audience doesn’t get the morality of it at all (confirmed when hearing 99% of feedbacks). Hence, I can’t imagine them internalising “the dreams they should be having to come to terms with the things they need to understand.” Most probably I am failing somewhere as I’m still honing my craft, but increasingly I believe M0-infected are immune from actually seeing anything. (Whilst perhaps only the pure snakes can see through my long term game plan.)

    Maybe there are some fractal operations taking place serendipitously on a subconscious level, which I can’t survey. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated. Big thanks for this blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s