I watched a documentary on the Museum of Modern Art the other day and it was not only a fascinating history of both the museum and the artists it has collected through the years but it also posed several questions about that art. Specifically questioning what is modern art? I highly recommend this documentary to everyone but I viewed it on my Roku from a long-forgotten video site so you may have to do some digging to find the video for yourself.
One thing struck me while watching the video: modern art in many ways was involved with altering the way we see things. Not just a group of prostitutes, but a collection of planes and lines, or a collection of colors, or some other way of categorizing the visible other than what might be captured in a photograph. Pablo Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’avignon was considered to be perhaps the one painting that forever changed the world of art.
I don’t profess to be an art expert but I can see that much of this modern art as well as current scientific knowledge of the way we see, suggests that our brains are adept at taking in many different facets of a view and putting then together to form a picture in our mind that corresponds to the view. This, of course, assumes that you just accept the picture-postcard version of the world around you. But if we look closely and really think about what we are seeing, the photograph begins to break into its constituent parts: we see colors and forms, but colors in life are not like in a paint box so the colors break into smaller areas and variations, and the firm surfaces break into a puzzle of different surfaces, some defined by shadow, some by form, some by color. Look at this
Our brains see a beautiful Asian woman but if you look closely, the entire painting is a collection of minute points of color. But the question is whether a similar challenge to our way of seeing the world can be achieved in text?
An excellent and simple way of experimenting with the way the reader “sees” the text is what we might call the Rashomon technique. Kurasawa’s film Rashomon was actually developed from Akutagawa’s 1922 short story “In a Grove” (although there were small elements of Akutagawa’s short story “Rashomon” in the film). This narrative technique tells the same story numerous times, each time changing the perspective by giving a different character’s reconstruction of the events. This same technique was used in the Paul Newman film, The Outrage (re-imagining Kurasawa films is a Hollywood tradition).
In the sixties I probably experienced my first text that forced me to change the way I processed the narrative. Love it or hate it, William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch was one of the most important works of the second half of the century. As my college professor explained it, Burroughs wrote the narrative and then literally cut it up and physically rearranged the pieces to create a different way of seeing or following the narrative of the novel, The first time I read Naked Lunch it was almost a total blurr but as I matured in my ability to comprehend literature I was able to reread the novel and each time I understood (or at least followed) better and gained a deeper insight and appreciation for the author.
A writer often associated with Burroughs, Kathy Acker, developed her own narrative technique which exploded the traditional ideas of the text. In Acker’s work the understandable text is interrupted with foreign or even pictorial text. Add to this the Acker technique of imaginative plagiarism (Don Quixote is a woman?) and her works are a challenge to the reader’s skill and perception.
Authors such as Flann O’Brien and Raymond Federman move the narrative in and out of the fiction challenging the reader with different levels or arenas of fiction, always being forced to question where one fiction stops and another level of fiction starts. In Federman’s novel Take It or Leave It characters who do not appear in a chapter move into a waiting room and chat amongst themselves (or if they are not due in the narrative for some time they might even take a mini-vacation out of town).
Raymond Federman and Mark Z. Danielewski are two writers who use the text of their novels in a graphical manner (recall also that Daniel Sterne used similar techniques in Tristram Shandy a few hundred years earlier). Danielewski is a good example of an author writing in a way that forces the reader to sometimes literally stand on their head. He also threads multiple narratives through his novels, in footnotes or running alongside the primary text (even one narrative in one direction and the other narrative in the other direction).
I could go on and on suggesting authors who attempt in their works to provide a different way for the reader to “see” the narrative. I’m sure you can add your own authors to this list. But the idea of altering the way we see things in a text, much like we do in modern art, certainly hasn’t been exhausted by writers as yet. Look around for new examples (a novel in a box, refrigerator magnets, colored text, multi-threaded narratives).
This non-traditional form of literature is often difficult to process but the rewards are great: not only in what comes from the text but also in training those little gray cells to twist themselves around a problem and learn new ways of doing a mental backflip.
I’m ready for a challenge … you?