Painting Stories: Are We Breaking the Fifth Wall?

Painting Stories: Are We Breaking the Fifth Wall?

Feature photo from chasemagnett

“I’m also very fascinated by those areas where the lines of cultures blur, because in those blurred edges is where synthesis occurs, and gardens grow.”– Jim Jarmusch

“You’re taking a Hip-Hop course at university? That’s a waste of money” one of my friends commented.

“It’s human poetry” I retaliated.

“It’s a waste of time, that’s what it is” my friend maintained.

Little did he know that the course was really a class on politics, anthropology, sociology, and art, all expressed through the modern medium of Hip hop. Little did he know that this course would sharpen my perspective on history, heighten my cultural awareness, and highlight the value of self-expression and art in society. His dismissive attitude suggested that this new medium of expression — hip hop – had little to offer besides entertainment, reflecting a common perception that newer art forms are in general less valuable than older, more established ones. This raises a pertinent question: are the innovative efforts towards expressing ourselves through new media a step forward or a step backward?

Mario Vargas Llosa, in Notes on the Death of Culture; Essays on Spectacle and Society, provides an impassioned critique of our time and age, arguing in favor of past mediums of expression. In his series of essays Llosa mourns the vanished role of “the intellectual” sidelined by distractions, imitations, and entertainment. He argues that today’s intellectual spheres have been colonized by a popular entertainment where everything is “consumed instantly and disappear[s], like cake or pop-corn.” On the contrary Llosa idealizes the past, arguing that it sought to “transcend mere present time, to endure, to stay alive for future generations.” Llosa breaks down elements of contemporary pop-culture, defining them as “light literature,” “light cinema,” and “light art”. Such “light” mediums are facades and illusions that give the viewer an impression of being cultured, modern, and revolutionary without any intellectual effort. Llosa’s speculations are compelling and provocative, pointing to valuable observations of post-modernity. He elegantly notes that there is a higher emphasis today on speed than depth as we enter a “bite-size” culture where spectacle, visual assimilation, and fantasy are central. Nevertheless, Llosa overlooks certain significant developments that come from such “light” mediums, namely the notion and space for self-expression.

There is value behind new media (such as graphic novels, television, and video games) in their ability to act as direct platforms for mirroring individual and collective emotion in a way that older forms of expression cannot convey. What differentiates new media from traditional media is that new media rests on technological development and requires an interactive community. Marshal McLuhan’s Understanding Media tackles the concept of “media” from a unique angle, defining it an “extension of man” (like all mediums are an extension to a physical, social, psychological, or intellectual function of a human being). To McLuhan, “media” refers then to the process of change, which occurs through everything that we conceive or create: ideas, inventions and innovations. For instance, he sees language itself as a medium or technology that extends our inner consciousness, thoughts, and feelings to others. Language is thus a medium of communication.

Through contemporary outlets of self-expression and various platforms of communication, we are granted space to become artists who paint our stories, color our sounds, and taste our emotions. An “artist” is not necessarily someone who possesses technical ability in a certain craft;  McLuhan describes the artist as “a man of integral awareness,” that is, “engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person aware of the nature of the present.” On that premise, my analysis is not meant to cast an absolute judgment on whether new media is “good” or “bad”, but point to the importance of being conscious of this vital paradigm shift.

Over the past decade there has been a growing body of critical discourse against integrating new media into the canonical literary and intellectual history. New media is often associated with the arena of popular culture given its wide accessibility, and it has been argued that new mediums lack the depth of their traditional media counterparts (such as newspapers, books, and novels) for delivering information. It is important to note, however, that our modes of expression are a valuable reflection of our cultural environments. Post-modernity is quickly evolving at a visual and aesthetic pace, where form and content have been merged. As McLuhan points out, “the medium is the message.”

Reptiles, M.C Escher, 1943

Reptiles, M.C Escher, 1943

Pictures speak volumes, as words paint stories. The modern medium of graphic novels for instance hybridizes two modes of expression:  literature and fine arts.  For many, it is regarded as the appropriation of popular culture into the literary canon. The initial public perception of the graphic novel saw it as another version of the comic book — an innately juvenile medium that was incapable of mature content or literary expression. Nonetheless, some of the most profound narratives of the 21st century have been expressed through graphic novels. A very prominent example is Art Spiegelman’s two volumes of Maus, a compelling narrative of Spiegelman’s interviews with his father about his father’s experience as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust.  The narrative is a visual allegory with Jews depicted as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs, welding a mixture of genres: memoir, biography, history, fiction, and autobiography. Although Spiegelman’s choice of symbolic character representation caused much controversy at the time of release, the graphic novel broke sensitive barriers and taboos, sparked a compelling debates, and ultimately became an influential member in the repertoire of Holocaust literature. The graphic novel medium is unique in that it can convey an array of emotions that are difficult to express through the written word alone. The traditional novel structure depends on a reader’s personal imagination, as it typically does not offer any pictorial assistance; graphic novels on the other hand delivers a fuller perspective on the narrative, since it interweaves two styles: the visual and the literal. It becomes harder to divorce the author from the text and thus graphic novels tend to be less generic in content. While graphic novels cannot completely replace traditional novels, the genre allows space for a new and profound mode of expression that echoes both personal and cultural realities.

New modes of communication and expression are not particular to the contemporary era. The literary and historical accounts of classical antiquity such as epic poems (Homer, Euripides, Sophocles), dialogues (Plato), philosophical discourses (Aristotle’s notes), and historical accounts (Thucydides, Herodotus) are preserved to this day in debt to the the technology of writing and the prevalence of the written tradition over the oral. The elite, doubting the fragility of oral transmission, wanted to record and preserve the history of literary thought; the written word was perceived as an innovative effort by the Greek elites to do so, acting as a resin that would stagnate ideas. The technology of writing was the  “new media” of the day. If it weren’t for Plato’s writings, Socrates teachings would not have been recorded. Likewise, print culture in the 18th century was another cultural paradigm shift, offering means that were liberating for expressing narratives. Print culture then was “new media” to the written word, in effect giving sovereignty and authority over text. The cyclicality of this process, of innovation and (not always immediate) acceptance of the new as a productive evolution is something that has happened time and again throughout history. Indeed, history shows us that technological shifts are inevitable, ontological, and integral to human development. The literary canon then has always been helpful in creating a common vocabulary of understanding, but never is it stagnant.

The traditional novel, too, has long dominated the study of literature. Professor Andre Furlani, Chair of the English Literature, explains how “until very recently, everything existed in a book.” Although it has only been a modern approach to compartmentalize intellectual pursuit into clearly defined disciplines, there our consciousness has evolved towards new mediums. Perhaps the novelty of the book evaporated, but it’s undeniable that its importance is ever present. The avant-garde movement in art and literature was a paradigm shift that emerged with its schools of thought, transforming the word “literary” to encompass the fields of film, art, and music. Furlani argues that “we are returning to a pre-modern and classical paradigm of interdisciplinarity.” An interdisciplinary approach is about creating something new by pushing boundaries. Digitizing and integrating new mediums into pedagogy allow us to translate human experience mimetically, artistically, and expressively. The “old” and the “new” are not necessarily opposing each other, but are rather two different marks on a timeline. Inevitably all that is “new” eventually dilutes into the backdrop of history and becomes “old”. Professor Stephen Yeager –English Literature at Concordia- (with an interest in medievalism in contemporary film, video games, and TV), explains how “studying new media tells us a lot about literature, since a lot of doors have opened up that have offered us pathways to retrieving information – and that openness has been taken for granted.” Yeager maintains that there will always be new modes of expression, because that is how human culture evolves.

Red Sky with Birds, Dia al-Azzawi, 1981

Many would argue that integrating new media into disciplines such as sociology, literature, and political science would be potentially destabilizing to dominant structures of knowledge. Nevertheless, it is important to consider the fact that new media is the form with which we present knowledge, not a genre or subject matter in itself. Moreover, modern mediums such as photography, film, video games and graphic novels each have their own aesthetic and literary flavor. Yeager expresses that “all literature is contemporary literature,” and that “they already inhabit the same space but they arise from different critical angles.” Although new media often appears to be a compilation of “easy bake” mediums due to their accessibility and strong relation to pop culture, their usefulness is not exclusive to pop culture and entertainment. They are indications of cultural changes, that deserve a closer critical approach rather than an outright dismissal. “The bigger question becomes,” as Furlani poses, “how do we negotiate these changes?”

Instead of perceiving new media as a threat to existing models of learning and expression, it’s more accurate to see it as a constructive step towards developing our critical approaches to contemporary discourse. The concept of new media, too, fits quite well within the etymological context behind the word “literature,” which refers to anything that is a written account. The Latin word ‘litertura’ stems from littera, which means “letter or handwriting,” and the word was later integrated with the Roman concept of cultura, which translates to “learning or cultivation.” “Literature” is then a hybrid of two significant anthropological concepts: the technology of writing, and the concept of an evolving culture. New media is simply a product of an evolved form and culture. We shouldn’t fear it but appreciate the new forms of expression it allows, while remaining ever cognizant of the value of the older forms of expression that preceded it.