Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Structure in Art

ArtsJournal links to Steven Berlin Johnson's thoughts about structure with the title "Are We Really Aware Of Structure In Art?" (an odd choice because the post doesn't ask that question, although it does discuss it). He says:
The funny thing about it is that I'm sure that people who enjoyed the book were in fact enjoying that deep structure; they just weren't fully aware of it. Maybe the best analogy isn't architectural, since you don't actually perceive the foundation of the building, even though it makes everything possible. Maybe a better analogy is music: I suspect most non-musicans aren't fully aware of chord changes the way they are conscious of melodies. Most of us can readily hum a tune from memory, but it's much harder to recall the chord progression. And yet the chords define the song as much as the melody does. Change the chords and the song changes dramatically.
Isaac is pondering the same thing. He offers up this passage in the book Tell It Slant:
While essays can be organized many ways-- through topic, chronology or passage of time-- organization through image and metaphor has become much more common. Clustering thoughts through images and loose associations (and metaphors are, at the most basic level, associations) seems fundamnetal to the way the human mind works. You may mentally jump from a look at a leaky faucet to a memory of watching the 1970s TV show "Charlie's Angels" because of the name of the actress Farrah Fawcett. You may then glide effortlessly from that thought to a sense memory of the powdered hot chocolate with marshmellows your mother made for you on weeknights while you watched television. As we grow more aware of and sophisticated about the way human consciousness operates, it makes sense that our literature will come closer to these basic thought rhythms.
And responds:
I've read essays that follow their author's minds down down down the neural pathways, that mimic the associative ways human consciousness work. They're boring when they're not bewildering because the different components don't resonate in a way that is meaningful to anyone other than their authors. It's telling that the example that follows this paragraph does not actually do what they're advocating here, but rather uses images to foreshadow an event in a narrative that progresses chronologically.
My feeling on structure is this: the brain collects information in two ways: one is the different pieces of information it provides, the other is the connections between them. These are equally important to the storage of information.

Structure in art is therefore important in terms of:
  1. The contexts and associations you form as you take in the work.
  2. How you'll retain this work later.
Right now, I'm reading Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. Narrative style is very much chaos, but there's a very subtle strong structure underneath it. There is a plot, it does move forward in time, but then it sidelines itself in chaotic rants.

That structure is there because it creates the world; it stymies the forward momentum, it creates the atmosphere inside Miller's head. When he gets lost in frothy rants, you almost lose him--and then he suddenly finds himself repeating a point, like a record suddenly skipping.

Because of the fast and loose association, there's a freedom afforded to Miller that a more plodding forward narrative wouldn't have. It creates Miller's mind, and creates the work. But there's enough structure to hold it together.

Richard Foreman creates works that have no discernible structure except image and theme. I would call him the theatrical fulfillment of Tell It Slant's image-based structure. It's definitely bewildering, and there's a lot that gets lost in translation for the reason Isaac lays out: the creator has different associations from me. But in a way, I can follow it, and on some level, I do feel like it works. But I freely understand if for other people it doesn't. It definitely feels hit and miss.

But the other effect of Foreman's style is that you have nothing to grab hold of afterwards. A few images might stick in your brain, but you don't remember exactly why or how. It's like an associative fog. Sounds and images, but nothing solid.

Foreman wants that (why? I don't know). He explicitly said in his book of essays (which sadly I don't have in front of me) that he doesn't want his audience to remember anything -- he wants it to be an experience in that room and that room only.

For me, that seems kind of useless. Why would I spend two hours or whatever of my time in a space that leaves me nothing? Nothing except shadows and mist?

Usually, structure just passes you by in the moment. but looking back, structure is what your mind hangs its hat on. If you want to remember a show, what do you do? You walk through the plot.

"Remember _________?"

"No, when was that?"

"It was after the King stabbed the Queen, and then he walks into the kitchen to makes a sandwich?"

"Oh yeah!"