Stories on the edge of familiarity

Monthly Archives: January 2014

Why We Can Never Judge a Creative Work on Its Own Merits

I blame this on individualism.

We view the world in discrete units, self-contained and self-motivated. And while that gives us some piece of the picture that is truth, it blatantly ignores several key components without which we cannot hope to understand the world we live in.

It lends itself well to categorization (which I’m convinced the ancient Greek philosophers had something of a fetish for), to analysis, to linear thinking, to abstract and systematized logic. Which are all well and good, having brought us very far, indeed, in isolated packets of knowledge that are terrible at communicating with each other.

My major is psychology and, whenever I’m in a class that teaches about how the brain works, we are given a cause-and-effect view. One thing affects the other, which affects the next, and so on and so forth. We are then told at one or two points, rather weakly, to remember that the brain doesn’t really work like that, because everything affects everything. One of my profs this semester lampshaded this by saying just before explaining the visual system: “Everything is actually interconnected, but we’re going to talk about it like it’s a hierarchy.”

We view this moment in time as a microcosm, explicable only by the factors within it, disconnected from past, or from potential future alienness. Our one location we see as the only location needed by which we can understand ourselves and the world. Other places, other times are nice to know, and knowledge of them makes us “educated”, but they exist Away. They are the Other, which individualism at its purest never acknowledges (for I Am is all), and individualism as it is practised barely tolerates.

And if I have to explain the ludicrousness of that, then I’m talking to the wrong people.

Stories are often taught, like neural connections, as a chain of cause-and-effect. But, truthfully, our actions never affect only one thing. They affect ourselves, others, the outcomes of our own lives, the outcomes of the personal lives of those in various degrees of connection to us, the outcomes of our city, country, world. The butterfly effect is less like dominoes and more like ripples in a pond.

Good stories, in my opinion, take this in mind and weave all the threads together in an intricately-designed rope. They remember this:

Reality is linear only inasmuch as time is linear. Interestingness is linear only inasmuch as time is linear.

And, while art is experienced during a linear flow of time, it itself is created as if all of the past and present available to the creator exists at once. As if all the locations in the world available to the creator exist in the same place. Because they do. They exist all at once and in the single location of the mind of the creator, and are then processed and brought out by a non-linear brain through the linearity of time and the analysis of the conscious mind.

No story exists without the context of folk tales, urban legends, and awareness of the classics. No piece of art exists without the context of modern conceptions of the artists of old, without the design of architecture, without the aesthetics of the natural world. No song exists without the context of jingles, iconic movie soundtracks, the rhythm of voices, the conceptualization of music genre. And this is all before considering the pool of the personal experiences and tastes of the creators of these works. (Although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that what we create is a rehashing of past creation. I say only that originality and novelty arise from a medium.)

We approach a work, a novel, a song, a book, and judge its quality, assuming that all we use in this appraisal is the information presented by the work itself. And so forget not only the context of the creator of that work, but also the context we draw from in order to make our conclusions. Where else but from our surroundings could we formulate the rules of good composition, plotting, or harmony? How else would we know when a creator breaks them? And, without knowledge of the old and tired, without a sense of how art has revitalized and refreshed itself at various points within our sphere of knowledge, how could we know if breaking those rules has either weakened or strengthened the work?

The truth is, we take the weight of experience, filter it through our mental and emotional representations of reality, and drive it down to the point of this moment, this work, to see how it bends under the pressure.

And to decide whether or not we like the result.