Saturday, 23 January 2010

I Blame It on the Romantics: On the Cult of Originality

In a recent post on James Cameron's Avatar, I wrote that the criticism surrounding this film has very much reminded me of the fact that we live in a culture which (sometimes quite paradoxically) puts too much emphasis on originality, as if that in and of itself would grant a work artistic or narrative quality. I also promised that I would deal with the subject more closely, so here we are.

It is important to note that our concept of originality in art and our conception of the artist (as a form of author-ity) are both fairly new ones that in many ways can be traced back to the literary movement of the Romantics in the early 19th century. Whereas the preceding literary period during most of the 1700s had focused on the art of imitation – where the highest achievement was a form of (sometimes inventive) copying and plagiarism (at times, admittedly, of kinds that today's copyright laws wouldn't have looked kindly upon) – the Romantics introduced notions of artistic originality.

Whereas the 1700s had had a focus upon the art of the Romans (themselves copying the Greeks), the Romantics found the Greeks themselves a great source of inspiration (a concept which itself is very crucial to the Romantic ideal of the artist). Mostly because they understood the Greeks as original in their output. Whether or not the Greeks actually were is, of course, another matter. Can we truly talk about Homer's penning down the great epic poems of an existing oral tradition an act of originality? Or is it in fact the essence of artistic tradition as repetitive and imitating?

Still, Homer serves as a great example, because that oral tradition be damned – his is the name we have put down on those ancient texts and his is the name to which we attribute their greatness.

While the Romantic period ended, and many periods have come and gone since then, we nevertheless seem to be somewhat stuck with their conception of the artist and their concept of originality in art (in the same manner that the style of 19th century Realism can still be said to rule a lot of mainstream fiction). We, like they, sometimes seem to laud originality as a sign of artistic or narrative quality. In short, the Romantics have left us with a Cult of Originality.

But what is originality, really? And what is truly original?

Turning, as so often before, to our trusted friend Merriam-Webster, originality is defined as:
1 : the quality or state of being original
2 : freshness of aspect, design, or style
3 : the power of independent thought or constructive imagination
Original, on the other hand, is defined as:
1 archaic : the source or cause from which something arises; specifically : ORIGINATOR
2 a : that from which a copy, reproduction, or translation is made b : a work composed firsthand
3 a : a person of fresh initiative or inventive capacity b : a unique or eccentric person
In a way, neither of the two words are very controversial in their meanings, but looking at the usage and application of them in connection to art (whatever the art form) shows the notion of the original or originality to be less than unproblematic.

The prime notion of the words is, of course, that whatever they are applied to should represent something new, something fresh – basically an origin of a kind. Yet the old adage, there is nothing new under the sun, seems to hold true far more often than the Romantics would probably have appreciated. For instance, many of the works we have tended to label original (fresh, inventive, etc) are actually not the starting point of a new trend. Rather, there is often a forgotten text, painting, piece of music or film (or more) somewhere, which for one reason or another didn't make an imprint on the public consciousness. What I am trying to say here is that we have tended not to merit actual originality as much as what we have perceived as original (for whatever reasons).

Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that these forgotten pieces are the masterpieces we should have been lauding instead of the "false idols" we have raised. Far from it. The reason they were forgotten (in at least many cases if not all) was probably because that which is first is actually not always the greatest example of a thing. Just consider this: regardless of how well you paint or draw, would you say that the pictures you made as a kid are vastly superior to the ones you could make now? Unless I'm mistaken, you just answered in the negative and the same is true for artistic styles and the like. The first attempts would rarely have been the best examples, and more often than not, their true originality would not really have captured the audience's undying appreciation, which perhaps the more polished third or fourth attempt would have. And that is fine. The question, however, is if we should laud that artistic effort as original? Or if we should rather just label it as good (or even great) art or storytelling, or whatever?

There is nothing wrong with being original. It is by no means a sin. That is not what I am trying to say. What I am trying to say is that it is not the originality that shows us whether a work is qualitative or not. That we see in whether the painting is well done, the music pleasing or the storytelling excellently crafted. Old stories can be good stories. Repetition and imitation can produce great art as well as great entertainment. And as long as we rely on a flawed concept of originality, a concept which seemingly only applies to something "original" to our own perceptions (rather than actually original in a historical "this was the first time ever" sense), it seems haphazard for it to be the deciding factor of quality. Because anything new seems original the first time we encounter it, regardless of whether or not it was the first time it happened or was done. In short, we are tainted (as so often) by our subjective perspectives (or the subjective perspective of a preceding authority).

Thus, do not come dragging the Cult of Originality into an artistic debate to vouch for quality. And if you choose to call something original, you'd better make sure that it was the first of its kind.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Conrad, Achebe and Cameron: A Critical Response to Will Heaven's Critique of Avatar

[Spoiler Warning! The final paragraph in this post does contain a slight spoiler for Avatar. If you have not yet seen the film and intend to, you may want to postpone reading this post (or at the very least its final paragraph)]

As my last blog post expressed my thoughts on and appreciation for James Cameron's Avatar, I would like to take the opportunity to offer a critical response to a rather severe critique of the film, written by Will Heaven in his Telegraph blog post "James Cameron's Avatar Is a Stylish Film Marred by Its Racist Subtext". Heaven writes:
Pandora is to Cameron what Africa was to Joseph Conrad – it's another, fictional 'Heart of Darkness', a place where a cruel imperial power subjects what is (perhaps unwittingly) depicted as a lesser race. Chinua Achebe, Conrad's fiercest critic, wrote that "Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as 'the other world,' the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality." Almost the exact same could be said of Avatar.
While I would agree that Cameron's film makes use of a romanticised literary or narrative stereotype of the "native" or the "savage" (which in itself can be discussed and problematised), I think Heaven makes way too much out of his Conrad reference and ends up doing Achebe no justice at all. Achebe's infamous article "An Image in Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" indeed criticises Conrad's text heavily for using Africa as a backdrop to his criticism of civilisation and white men's greed. Most of all because Conrad never inverts or in any way plays with the binary relationships between good and evil, light and dark, white and black, but rather suggests that civilisation and white men can be just as evil, dark and black as Africa and the Africans. Achebe argues that Africa in Conrad's text is reduced to being a literary backdrop for an extremely white story, that of Kurtz's fall into darkness, as it were. And there's the rub.

Heaven argues that "Almost the exact same could be said of Avatar" and I find that disingenuous. In what sense, does Cameron's film project the image of Africa as "the other world"? In fact, if anything, Cameron's film projects another world. After all, Pandora unlike Conrad's Africa (or Dark Continent) is another world, and as such is freer to be projected as a backdrop or even an antithesis of civilisation. Clearly there are intertextual touch points between Cameron's film and Conrad's text, but Cameron escapes the burden of representing an actual Africa in a manner that Conrad could not. Whereas Conrad is criticised by Achebe for using Africa as a backdrop, Cameron, strictly speaking, simply isn't. As stated, the film does indeed draw upon a romanticised literary or narrative stereotype of the"native" or the "savage" (which agreeably, and as also stated, is far from unproblematic), but as this image of a "native" or "savage" is disjointed from an actual place — is in fact invented as a new people, a new species even, rooted in an other place — it is the critic himself who infers it to be anything akin to an actual representation of "Africa".

Heaven further argues that:
As Left-wing conceits go, this one surely tops all the others: the ethnic Na'vi, the film suggests, need the white man to save them because, as a less developed race, they lack the intelligence and fortitude to overcome their adversaries by themselves. The poor helpless natives, in other words, must rely on the principled white man to lead them out of danger.
All of which seems to miss a lot of what is actually going on in the film. If anything, the Na'vi is presented (albeit in a very romanticised fashion) as morally and ecologically superior to "us". As such, they are clearly an idealisation which (despite being positive rather than negative) may not be a proper representation of indigenous people anywhere on Earth, but that, I would argue, is fine in the sense that they are not such a representation. They are an idealised version of a stereotypical and generalised idea of what constitutes a "native" or a "savage"; of something very much along the line of the Romantics' yearning for man to be closer to nature. But this closeness to nature is, in the case of the Na'vi (and as stressed by Sigourney Weaver's scientist character in the film), conceptualised as a biological fact. The Romantic ideal is thus presented as a biological reality, a measurable reality.

Furthermore, the notion that the Na'vi lack intelligence seems somewhat ludicrous. They are clearly more apt at learning English than Sam Worthington's character Jake Sully is at learning Na'vi (though it is of some importance to note that Sully also works on learning the Na'vi language). Thus, if it is the superior technology at the hands of the corporation (which indeed proves to be something of an uneven match for the Na'vi) that is the problem for Heaven here, I would counter with the argument that this actually offers a truthful account matching that of our history books, where the colonial enterprise of (in particular) white men has repeatedly devastated cultures less technologically advanced. The more prominent question to my mind, would be why Heaven is so ready to accept technological advances as the only signs of an advanced culture? From my point of view, the film rather suggests that the technological advancement (and the way it is used) reveals a lack of sophistication. The fact that the cruel application of this technology (by the corporation and its armed forces) is beyond anything that the both morally and ecologically speaking more highly evolved Na'vi could themselves really imagine is hardly a damning statement about them, is it?

Besides, I find it to be a somewhat dubious a claim to argue that it is Sully's actions that save the day in the end. It is true enough that his actions do contribute and that the Na'vi do need that contribution. Particularly in the sense that it allows a culture foreign to it, a peek into the destructive mindset of our own culture as well a better understanding of their adversary's modus operandi. All that being said, at the end of the day it is actually Eywa (i.e. what one could arguably describe, more or less, as Pandora's planetary consciousness), and not Sully, which saves the day.

Monday, 11 January 2010

A Stunning Visual Experience: Thoughts on James Cameron's Avatar

Yesterday, I finally went to see James Cameron's Avatar in 3D. I had heard a lot of good things about it (primarily about the visuals) as well as a fairly equal amount of criticism concerning the film's lack of originality. Either way, my expectations were fairly high.

And Cameron delivered.

Avatar (in 3D) is one of the most stunning visual experiences of my life. In that regard, Cameron has clearly taken the film medium to a new level. In terms of the story told, I can understand the criticism that it is not original. It simply isn't. Not even by a long shot. If you have seen, say Dances With Wolves and Braveheart, the film is not likely to shock or surprise you with its plot. Nor is Cameron's critique of corporate culture and non-ecological thinking by any means subtle. However, what is all the more fascinating in that respect is that, despite being so unoriginal and unsubtle, it is nevertheless ever so topical and current. And sadly so, I hasten to add. Because it would have been nice if the human race could ever learn something from past mistakes and leave greed (corporate or otherwise) behind.

All of this aside, Avatar tells its story well. Not only in a purely visual sense, but also in terms of storytelling. While it is original neither in terms of themes nor narrative structuring, it nevertheless tells its story in a way I find compelling. Don't get me wrong, the visuals are clearly part of this, but then again, the visuals are also very much a part of telling stories in the medium of film. Cameron's film may not shock or surprise me, but it can still make me invested in the narrative, its world and the characters in it. So, the MacGuffin (of a sort) of the film is neither innovatively nor subtly named (as if all things in real life are), but really, how much of the narrative focuses upon the Unobtainium itself? It is there simply to present the reason for corporate or imperialist greed in whatever form it appears (oil, ivory, diamonds, animal hides, you name it). Would the film really have been so much better if Cameron had come up with a better name for it or invented a more subtle political spectrum for his story? Sure, it might have added dimension to the film, no argument there, but would it necessarily have made it a better story? I'm not so sure. We live in a culture which (sometimes quite paradoxically) puts too much emphasis on originality as if that in and of itself would grant a work artistic or narrative quality.
(In fact, the criticism surrounding Cameron's film has very much reminded me of this particular hobby-horse of mine yet again and as a result I aim to deal with that subject more closely in an upcoming post.)

All in all, Avatar is an enjoyable story and, more than anything else, it is a stunning visual experience. If ever there was a reason to urge people to get out of their sofas and head down to their nearest cinema (and preferably then one with 3D capability), this is it.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Stereotypes, Archetypes and Iconic Characters

Earlier today, I watched Wonder Woman: Daughter of Myth, a roughly 25 minutes long documentary piece provided as a DVD extra on Wonder Woman (the animated feature length film from 2009), and the term archetype kept being bandied about a lot. Now, the notion that the realm of superhero comics play with archetypes is far from new, but what made me react a little bit aversely to it here was the fact that several people seemed to overuse the term, to the extent where it was used even when it wasn't strictly speaking archetypal patterns they were talking about.

First of all, one of the people, rather simplistically, equated archetypes with stereotypes, which ruffled my feathers from the get go. A stereotype, according to Merriam-Webster, is defined as either "a plate cast from a printing surface" (which admittedly has no bearing on this discussion) or "something conforming to a fixed or general pattern; especially : a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment." Apart from the fact that the word obviously carries rather negative connotations, it is clear that it is about reducing something to an assumed characteristic. An archetype on the other is defined as one of three things:
1 : the original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or copies : PROTOTYPE; also : a perfect example
2 : IDEA 1a
3 : an inherited idea or mode of thought in the psychology of C. G. Jung that is derived from the experience of the race and is present in the unconscious of the individual
For the sake of my discussion, I would like to say that it is definitions 2 and 3 that are of importance, very much so, because the Jungian notion taps into that of the second definition. Following the link to definition 1a of the word "idea" gives us "a transcendent entity that is a real pattern of which existing things are imperfect representations," which along with Jung's psychological application of it provides us with an understanding of something far from reduced; something which is rather (imperfectly) embodied in representations. It is probably not an coincident that Jung's research came to affect the study of storytelling and mythology through its application and further development within those fields by in particular Joseph Campbell. After all, the Platonic relationship implied in the very nature of an archetype nicely mirrors that of mythological gods taking on earthly flesh and form, known to us from Hindu mythology as avatars. As such, I would argue that, while the stereotype is reductive in nature, the archetype more resembles a type of Platonic projection upon the cave wall, providing a pattern that can be seen in various places (though never looking exactly the same, due to the inherent imperfection in the representation). Or put differently, it could perhaps be said that (unlike the stereotype) it is not the archetype but its representation which is the reduction.

Moving on to the overuse and perhaps misuse of the term archetype in the documentary, I would first of all agree that archetypes project recognisable patterns. Just as a Platonic idea of say a chair is recognisable no matter the look of the actual physical chair in front of us, simply because its elements or patterns correspond to our understanding of that idea (linguistically speaking), an archetype will be recognisable to us as a symbolic role or a narrative pattern. That in the case of the archetype, however, does not mean a direct visual recognition. A person unfamiliar with the Wonder Woman mythos would not immediately recognise the archetype, or even archetypes, involved in her character and her stories.

Yet, in this day and age, Wonder Woman is a visually recognisable character. Some of the comments in the documentary quite clearly related to this very notion, the visual on-sight recognisability, but kept referring to that as related to the archetypal power of the character. However, that would imply that Wonder Woman herself is the archetype rather than a visual and narrative incarnation of an existing archetype or even several intersecting archetypes (in terms of stories told using the character). Rather what these comments refer to is the character's iconic status.

Returning to Merriam-Webster, we can look at in particular definitions 1, 2 and 4 of the word "icon":
1 : a usually pictorial representation : IMAGE
2 [Late Greek eikōn, from Greek] : a conventional religious image typically painted on a small wooden panel and used in the devotions of Eastern Christians
[- - -]

The visual aspect of the word is quite obvious from these definitions, but also that it is a recognisable image (cf. definition 2). As such, we can talk about a certain sense of iconicity when dealing with certain superheroes, simply because they have become not merely recognisable characters in a simple visual sense, but in one related to the public consciousness. Show an image of say Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman or Spider-Man to a number of people and it is highly likely that they will not only superficially recognise them, but also name them, perhaps even provide some basic character data. Obviously this is far from true about most comic book characters (or other fictional characters in general for that matter). In fact, apart from the four mentioned, I would be rather unwilling to add further candidates (from the comics medium), with the possible exception of Robin (whom I think might be carried along with Batman's iconicity), Hulk and (with slightly more doubt) Captain America.

At the end of the day, I find the concept of iconicity just as fascinating as that of archetypes, but I would still stress that there is a difference between the two concepts (just as there is between archetype and stereotype), and that difference is far from a superficial "po-TAY-to" / "po-TAH-to" matter.