Sunday, October 23, 2011

Purposeful Art

I've decided to take fellow Novelnaut Shauna up on the invitation in her last post to further explore the blog's theme for this month: Should fiction have a purpose?

Last week I attended a lecture where that question was thrown out to the class in a slightly different form: Should art have a purpose? At one point the lecturer urged me to decide one way or another. I could not. Initially I found the ideal of Aestheticism, or art for art's sake, profoundly appealing. Why should art, including fiction, have any underlying purpose? Why set out to be didactic, or political, or moralistic? Why not just be wildly or quietly creative with no motive but to express an innate impulse to make something new, beautiful and utterly useless?

As the discussion progressed and I gave the issue more thought I decided that whether the artist/writer intends it or not, all art has purpose intrinsically: entertainment, yes, but also humour, exploration of ideas, places, eras and peoples, "life, the universe and everything" - or to put it succinctly, it explores all of what it means to be human. The audience brings myriad reference points to the story and each member takes away something unique and lasting. Every book I've read has made an impression, even the ones I've flung against the wall.

What makes a creative piece 'fluff'? The fact that a book was written for entertainment alone does not devalue it; I've found value in some of the most light-hearted, frivolous, agenda-free stories. So here I go, trotting over to the Aestheticist aisle once again. I submit that what debases a work of fiction is not the absence of an overt purpose on the part of the writer but whether, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the story is well or badly written.


Charles Gramlich said...

One reader's value is another reader's fluff, I should think. I was reading a book about some fascinating genetic studies on butterflies. The author mentioned at one point giving a talk about his findings, which I think are wonderful, and getting a note from a "reader" who said "why don't you brains solve some real problems instead of studying butterflies. who cares?" I guess to that guy, the stuff I (and the author) found fascinating was fluff.

Liane Spicer said...

Charles, that's the problem with value judgements - they're so subjective. I make judgements on books all the time, but they tend to be based on the competence or otherwise of the author rather than whether the books are purely for entertainment or contain some other purposeful element.

Shauna Roberts said...

I think readers come away from a book with a message of some kind, whether the author intends it or not. So it seems pragmatic of the author to help the reader come away with a useful message (Don't give up on your dreams; Where there's a will there's a way; Love is more important than money). Otherwise, who knows what lessons the reader will draw?

I think part of the reason we disagree on this issue, Liane, is that I rarely read for solely for entertainment. To me, the books worth reading are those that I not only enjoy but also get something else out of: a deeper knowledge of a period of history; what's it's like to be a ———————; how the future may play out. I apply the same standard to my own writing.

Liane Spicer said...

I hear ya, Shauna. I'm a moody reader; when I'm stressed out I look for light fare and read deeper, more challenging books when I'm more relaxed. The same goes for my writing.

I'm just happy that I'll never run out of books to read, whatever my mood, whatever the message.