"I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God's hands, that I still possess." -Martin Luther

Friday, January 20, 2006

Description is Art

Description is a powerful tool. The proliferation of writers has made us blind to the fact that most people cannot describe effectively, at least without a long time to think; and those who can rarely put their skills to good use. Modern literature tends towards cheap suspense, gore, romance, and ideas. Refer to Langauge I. I was rambling about an idea I had, albiet an interesting one, at least to me; I used funny, sometimes slightly violent and grose illustrations, and I described almost nothing at all.
I remember spending half an hour in class a few years ago, examining Louisa May Alcott's descriptions in the first few pages of Little Men. If I used the phrases she did in conversation, I would get weird looks. This ties in to language, I suppose, since we have become used to reading one language and speaking another.
I think my complaint here is that people don't appriciate the value of describing. I say this because it has become common-place, but dry. Watch someone's face as they are reading a beautiful description. They will probably frown as they try to follow the language used. Better yet, show someone a beautiful computer rendered New Zealand landscape in Lord of the Rings or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. See if this excites oohs and aahs. Probably a good number of people would be impressed by this. It is visual, prepared, packaged. It takes only the optic lobes to understand it. Now show a shot from Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, a blazing lightsaber duel or a incredibly detailed shot of capitol ships fleeing and pursuing, smaller vessels bursting into clouds of bright flame and debris. You will probably get a better reaction.
My point is that written description is valued below visual, and leads me into my second point.
Descriptions of violence, conflict, and catastrophe are valued about those of peace, beauty, and reality. Many readers will sit entranced as they read about men being butchered, buildings being destroyed, and massive battles being joined. They will yawn and their eyes will drift when they come to the description of the brave knight, the mighty buildings filled with people going about their daily work, the farm of the militiaman. Why? Well, it's not very exciting.
This gets into all the arts. When it comes down to it, which is more exciting: chopan or Yellowcard? Be honest now, which one gives you a burst of energy?
This is my second point: The art of written discription has fallen so out of grace that it is only considered good if it dwells on subject matter that naturally excites strong emotions. One might argue that a landscape could, or should do so. This is another point, however -- that we devalue the "natural art" all around us. But anyone who lives in New Zealand, though they may love and enjoy their nation's landscapes, probably is not strongly moved overy time they look out the window. Some probably are, and that is a good thing. But these New Zealanders (please understand I am using them as an example solely because of their beautiful country's recent movization) probably come back again and again for more violent, gory, description.
So descriptive art is undervalued. Why? Well, for one thing it is slow, old, takes brain power to understand, and typically does little to move a story. Picture readers as the impatient young boy in the art museum tugging on his parent' hands to hurry up to the next exhibit, rather than stand staring at the one they are already at. But at the next exhibit he does the same thing. He does not appriciate the art in front of him.
Readers are not entirely to blame. I would not enjoy a modern art exhibition very much, myself. It has degraded into a contest to be instantly shocking, and sometimes violent and gory.
Descriptive art is a talent few authors possess. Fortunately, we have access to just about everything ever written. Look at Tolkien's long, extensive description of peoples, histories, lands, buildings, and armies. Yet, in the midst of thick battle, he says "Three times Aragorn and Eomer rallied them, and three times Anduril flamed in a desperate charge that drove the enemy from the wall." He does not explain in great detail how Aragorn cut apart numerous orcs, nor how the orcs did horrible things to their victims. At times he does go into gruesome detail. But here his point is not for you to enjoy the gore, but to have your mind and senses "entertained" by the desperate struggle to hold the wall. There is a place for descriptive art that describes horrible things, and violent, tumultous struggles, whether they are actual battles or just famines, depressions and arguments. My conclusion is that, while the subject of any art must by definition be an essential part of that artwork, it only rarely defines whether the art is good or bad. There are venues in which some things should never be described, others where it is necessary that they be. But where description is for entertainment, the question to ask is first "is this description here to be thought over and appriciated, crafted to be a thing of beauty in and of itself, a proper vehicle for conveying information to the senses?" and second "is what it conveys a thing worth considering for entertainment?"
One thing to notice here is that entertainment is having your attention held captive. Enjoyment is taking pleasure in something. We may properly read about a great battle, and be entertained, but I do not think we should enjoy the battle; perhaps the skill of the artist who describes it, however.
So, that is my convoluted take on describing things in books: people don't value it, don't do it well, and make their subjects the only point, instead of trying to make the medium itself beautiful.
For those of you who are wondering exactly what brought me to write this, please understand this blog is a school assignment. I do enjoy talking about what I think, but I normally wouldn't be writing about this, but I have to use the medium, whether I can think of anything I want to write about or not. I have a nasty sinus cold this morning, and feel rather light-headed. Perhaps this is an explanation.

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