2019/03/18

Ars Longa

birdhouse

Hang out around science fiction authors long enough, and you get the sense that they're all crazy.

John Scalzi claims that Donald Trump and the weather conspired to give him writer's block. Patrick Rothfuss and George R. R. Martin have cited similarly temperamental reasons for not finishing their popular series.

The ancient Romans had a saying, Ars longa, vita brevis. Moderns take it to mean that life is short, but works of art last.

We post-Renaissance types get the, "Life is short," part right. But ancients and Medievals didn't restrict the meaning of ars to "fine art". For them, it could apply to any craft.

The equivalent Greek word is techne. That's a big clue that everybody before the Modern era would have put Michelangelo and Steve Jobs in the same general category. Both made stuff according to a standard.

That's really what writing is. A carpenter makes a birdhouse by putting wood, nails, and glue together in the right configuration. An author makes a book by doing the same thing with character, setting, and conflict.

The arbitrary split between fine arts like oil painting, sculpture, and literature and crafts like carpentry, plumbing, and coding is a Modern novelty. We take it for granted, but historically it's an anomaly based on largely unexamined assumptions.

Reading the previous two paragraphs may incite the knee-jerk response that broadly classifying authors alongside plumbers is materialist reductionism that sucks the soul out of writing.

Only if you think that plumbers don't have souls.

The appeal to mysticism as justification for placing fine art in its own airy realm high above the noise and odors of the trades betrays the same Modernist bias I'm calling out.

Ancients and Medievals understood that man is spirit and flesh at once, and thus all of his actions have a spiritual dimension. There is a role for both Martha and Mary. The shoemaker is no less holy than St. Anthony.

Cartesian philosophy, with its crude mind-body dualism, caused a rupture between the mystical and the mundane that's since plagued Western thought. The body perishes, but the soul is immortal, so the soul must take priority.

That appraisal doesn't jibe with the example of a God who holds the human body in such high esteem that He became incarnate.

Imposing a false binary that relegates skilled craftsmen to grunt status while elevating "real artists" has created a class of neurotic posers who perpetually fret about muses and demons. Meanwhile, we have to wait five years to find out what happens in book three.

And because heresies always come in pairs, you get small-soulded bugmen preaching the opposite extreme: STEM and the trades are the only fields of "real value". Jobs in the arts are decadent sinecures for losers who can't make it in the grownup world.

The fault lies in the choice of interpretive key. Too many grope at the arts in the darkness of either/or. The only light that can reveal the whole beast is both/and.

All craftsmen are human beings with immortal souls. Poetry is a craft. Setting up a network in an office building can be a mystical experience.

If you're an aspiring author, ditch the angsty writers' workshop BS, and nail yourself to the wood of your desk.

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30 comments:

  1. Consider that artists did not sign their works before the Renaissance. They made a reputation by the quality of their work, but in death that reputation faded. Their greatest feats were entered into the body of works of their people and cared for with pride by their ancestors. Anonymous. Art was not a means for immortality. There were other, higher, avenues for that.
    What would the implications be if we still held that practice today?
    Also, think of stories passed on by word of mouth. Great tales sung but great forgotten bards.
    Sure there are attributed texts dating back to antiquity, but was that more a pressure of historicity than vanity? I don't know, just posing questions to ponder while offering a little perspective to do so. Love to hear everyone's thoughts.

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    1. "Consider that artists did not sign their works before the Renaissance."

      Fascinating. I hadn't realized that.

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  2. Then there is the constant complaints from the religious who have an almost eerily similar narrow view of what art is:

    https://www.thecatholicthing.org/2019/03/09/do-catholics-care-about-art/

    But there is a big piece constantly avoided in such circles. Flannery O'Connor wrote Gothic Horror. Walker Percy wrote thrillers. Chesterton wrote fantasies and mysteries. All story types that are abhorred by the infinitesimally tiny elite.

    Most writers claiming to be inspired by them could never write a story like the Man Who Was Thursday. All that low class genre influence would stink up the cocktail party discussions.

    Any divide that exists in the arts today can be traced to the autistic obsession with Purity and overbearing fanaticism by those who have chosen their ego as a god to worship.

    The audience isn't looking for Catholic Fiction. That is why Tuscany Press went under years ago. They want Good Fiction. And if you want to supply it you might want to avoid the style that has historically the least audience friendly for the longest amount of time.

    Nobody's going to care what the themes are or how clever the writing is if the story is dull.

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    1. That John C. Wright isn't a household name goes to show how converged tradpub is and how badly the Church's media outlets are dropping the ball.

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  3. Modern artists are losers who aren’t good at anything so they decide to make livings out of being terrible at art.

    Aren’t I a ray of sunshine?

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    1. Nope. In fact I'd go further and add and because they're losers, they're also troublemakers who want to bring attention to themselves how much the struggle for art's sake and not sell out. WHat ever that means

      The older artists were a pain sure; but they didn't make a nusiance of themselves.
      xavier

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  4. "The Craft Endures, Life is Fleeting."

    Shaker philosophy towards work is an example. "Don’t make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful."


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  5. Something I want to add whenever Brian is on this topic: one doesn't need to articulate a standard to feel it.

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  6. Thinking more about this... the idea of a standard doesn't resonate with me so much as making sure the art achieves a closed loop. It comes from you, it goes out into the world, you get some kind of response, feedback, etc. Whatever it is, you have to create a situation where it's possible to fail.

    This closed loop seems tied in some way to how you handle the parts of what you're doing that come into contact with something you can't control. You're not completely free. In fact, a lot of what is known as quality has something to do with how you operate under the limits of the material you're working with.

    There's a book, recommendation to me which I need to check out, called The Power of Limits, by a Hungarian artectect.

    Its the material itself, but with a sufficiently abstract form the material is really the human mind and the symbols inherited from your culture. These things you can't control. But how you work with them says a lot about the quality of the forms you're putting into the world.

    "Things you can't control" is sort of a stand-in for reality. If your efforts interact meaningfully (which is another way of saying "making a closed loop") with reality, then you have a greater chance that the fruit of your efforts will have the same effect on others who experience it, those people also experiencing reality outside of themselves as you do. Your art's efforts at interacting with reality mirror the experience of the person who experiences your art, and that common frame of reference allows communication to occur.

    Maybe I'm belaboring the point here, but cranky traditionalists have a tendency to use terms without defining them, and over here we can do better.

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  7. Jared,

    Standards refers to truth, beauty and the good. Thus does the art conform to those standards? Do they satisfy their teological reality? Do they entertain? Do they work (for mechanical things)? Etc.
    So we can judge art. Most contemporary is ugly, doesn't satisfy its teological reality, etc.
    xavier

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    1. Saying truth, beauty, good doesn't save you from someone else saying that's, like, just your opinion, man. These words get thrown around a lot without understanding them or defining them. The only people you can communicate with now are the people that share your sense of what those words mean. Congrats, you lost the culture war.

      Should I not look for a better way to talk about this stuff? Should I stop looking? Should I make a cargo cult of truth, beauty, and goodness? Just repeat the words three times and perambulate in the circle a few times?

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    2. When I'm writing music I couldn't tell you what it means is something is true or not. How is a melody ever false? What does that even mean? The word doesn't apply, it's not helpful.

      And there's the difference between beauty and prettiness. A lot of things are rather ugly but have a certain beauty to them, and some things are pretty but not beautiful. These words don't get me anywhere at all.

      There's a tradition of really boring bow-tie tier conservative art. Forget that noise.

      And how is music good or evil? It doesn't have a life of it's own. The word just doesn't mean anything in that context.

      With harmony I can ask "is it still possible to feel orientation towards the root even when it's no longer present in the harmony?" And that's trying to create a closed loop. There's a limit to what the mind can do and you're trying to push that limit, or work within it, or something...

      I've found, that it's when things are right on the edge of breaking apart that they are the most powerful.

      It needs to be said that most music in Mozart's time was pretty awful and derivative and didn't stand the test of time. There were 1000's of composers working in the common practice period... and we discuss and listen to a tiny percentage of them. Until the 20th century is long gone we can see which 2-3 composers are actually influential 2 or 3 centuries from now. I doubt it will be Schoenburg, it could be Arvo Part or Bartok. More likely some film composers, tbh, or Steve Reich. But it's not possible to compare applies to applies right now.

      I see this a lot in music. Someone complains that music today is ugly noise and then describes their ideal piece like it's some kind of soapy bubble bath. And then you go back and look at what Bach actually wrote and he's doing all sorts of bizarre, out of key dissonances disjunct themes that just barely holds together.

      It's weird. I've seen it too many times. People have no trouble with a Homeric account of battlefield savagery but you put one dissont chord in a piece of music and they freak out. Some people really just.. have bad taste.

      We need better thinking around this.

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    3. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. Those who don't believe in objective meanings or terms choose not to. You might as well slam your head against a brick wall.

      It's not your job to convince anyone who doesn't want to be convinced. If they're honest they will seek it out for themselves.

      You can always use the old standby of Modern Art and how it still is looked at as a joke and ridiculous to even the non-religious. Its entire intent is to be ugly and disgusting and it reviles people to their core. How long have they been pushing this junk and yet it has still not taken hold in the populace? That is significant.

      We know what truth and beauty is, underneath it all. But if we aren't willing to look for it then there is nothing to be done.

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    4. Modern Art starts, roughly, with the impressionists. You can't watch a movie today without seeing their influence on the lighting.

      I wouldn't be surprised if the set design of John Wick was influenced by the Dali in one way or another.

      The movie Alien is extremely ugly and yet... gorgeous at the same time.

      I've seen people transfixed in front of Rothko paintings... not revolted... I don't think they were faking it.

      It helps to be able to talk about the process of stumbling your way to worthwhile art. The actual doing. I think limits are big part of that. I suspect that's how to make new art that people can still follow.

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    5. Jared,

      What do understand by limits?
      Could you define the term so I can understand your perspective? Right now I'm making assumptions about your term

      xavier

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    6. I'll try, because I'm operating on a hunch.

      If you carve stone, once something is chiseled away, it's gone. Too thin it cracks. If you work in wood, there are ways that it can be shaped and ways it cannot. Bend at the wrongtemperature, it warps. If you paint, there are ways the eye can follow an image and ways the eye does not. If you tell a story, there's methods to make a listener take interest in a character and there's ways that don't work.

      There's convention, trope, tradition, time constraints, cognition, physics, perception, budget, materials, political sensibilities, taboos... any number of things that reduce the options of what can be done with material. Maybe some are more valid than others.

      That's what I mean by limits.

      Within your mind you can call into being anything you want. But that doesn't mean you can manifest it in the world. Nor does it mean it can be manifested in the world by anyone. That's how you know the world is real, because there's limits. It's how you know the world is real, it's how your audience knows the world is real.

      So, there's something about limits, the way an art operates within the constraints imposed on it by its materials, that links it to the objective world.

      It's not significant that Bach manages to include so many permutations of a motive in one of his fugues, it's that he does that while also moving through perfectly logical harmonic progressions and clear spatial designs.

      So a standard, an objective standard, is linked in some way to what can be done within a limit.

      I hope that is somewhat clear. I'll know I have a better understanding when I can explain it in 2-3 sentences.

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    7. Jared,

      Thanks. It's much cleaner. I concur but it's how you combine the permutations within the limits that makes great art.
      xavier

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    8. I only said significant because what I described is really only a bare minimum for quality. What makes Bach great and a lesser contrapuntalist not... I don't know. I suspect only Bach knows and he can express it only through his counterpoint.

      I think I need to get that power of limits book and see what I can see.

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  8. If Martin has writers writers block, then why is he still putting out anthologies, comic books and prequel stories? Methinks he is so afraid of letting down his audience he will put off the book indefinitely like Valve and the Half Life series.

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    1. At this point, he can't help but let them down. He killed off all the interesting characters.

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    2. Honestly it should've been a trilogy. That being said I know Martin's fans (including quite a few big YouTube channels) will keep admonishing fans as 'impatient' and go on about how "how dare you criticize Martin, why are you so selfish" right up until he kicks the bucket.

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    3. "It should have been a trilogy"

      The epitaph on more than one bloated 90s SFF series' tombstone.

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    4. Book 4 of the Dark Tower was good, except for killing off Tic Tock too soon. I was interested in seeing Walter/RF build his own anti-ka tet to oppose Roland's. But the story could've been wrapped up in six books. A fifth to bring them to the Tower, a running battle to get there, and a sixth taking place entirely inside the nexus of universes. Maybe a chance for the good guys to stop in all the prior King novels for a 'greatest hits' on the way to the top.

      But what's up there? The reader probably shouldn't get to see it: it couldn't be worth the buildup. Maybe that chapter is from another character's POV who sees Roland finally reach the top...and the multiverse begins to move back to balance...

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    5. Book 5: dump the Dr. Doom robot werewolves, demon babies and meta nonsense and give us Andrew Quick and a deadly posse of cyborgs/robots, harriers, vampires and mutants! Maybe another beam-guardian gone corrupt and mad.

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    6. Re: Martin, I thought a pair of trilogies would have worked well. Storm of Swords resolved all the immediate plotlines and laid the groundwork for future adventures, with a bunch of characters going into 'training'.

      It would have worked if a second trilogy had kicked off set maybe ten years after Storm of Swords, with winter about to start.

      Dany launches her invasion and takes Dragonstone. Meanwhile Jon and Stannis and Bran get a bunch of the 'good' characters together at the Wall for a Council of Elrond type moment where they understand the threat of the Others and what has to happen. Then the Others aided by human agents/worshippers strike and bring down the Wall. Half of the good guys head north to fight the Others at the source, while Jon and some others head south to try to warn Dany and get her dragons' help.

      Meanwhile Arya shows up, now a full Faceless, and starts shortening her list. But she's got a mission: assassinate Dany. Jon prevents the assassination and saves Dany in the ultimate meet-cute, kicking off their romance plotline.

      As for Arya, I thought Martin was shaping her up to be the ultimate villain at the end, to keep to her arc of seeing how far down she can go, even of taking the Faceless Men's philosophy farther than they would dream of: like Sweeny Todd said: We all deserve to die. The lives of the wicked should be made brief, for the rest of us death will be a relief.

      At the end of Storm of Swords I had a picture in my mind of this scene where adult Arya is in the farthest north, she disrobes and walks into this pitch-black lake of freezing cold stuff that doesn't turn into ice, and slits her own wrists and plunges her hands below the surface...her veins get all black, her skin turns white and her eyes turn blue.

      Then she smashes the Night King and takes over, and at the end it's her vs Jon and Dany and Bran.

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    7. Someone should write a Not-ASoIaF trilogy like we are doing with GundamForUs and NotStarWars and steal those ideas. ;)

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    8. It could work, but it would have to pick up where Storm of Swords left off, or about 10 years afterward, with the Dragon queen starting her invasion and the Jon-analog trying to reach her to convince her that there's more at stake than taking back her kingdom. Maybe getting caught up as people either rush to swear fealty to her or rally to the usurper queen and her weakling son's banner. That way they can refer to the civil war the way people in ASOIAF refer to the Baratheon war with the Taragyons, and readers will get the joke.

      And the Jon analog saving the Dany analog from the assassin's blade gets her attention enough to fly him back to Wall analog and sit in on the Council of Elrond type scene. Then the bad guys strike...

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