Thursday, May 15, 2008

Vision Labels

In the April '08 print issue of Watercolor Artist magazine, Michelle Taute has an interesting article, Eyes Wide Open about author and watercolor artist Elizabeth Groves that includes a sidebar explaining Ms. Groves' belief that every painting focuses on one of four different artistic visions: Curious (the what-iffers), Innovative (the remakers), Aesthetic (the awe-inspired) and Practical (the realists.)

I test-drove the idea by mentally thumbing through my favorites of the old masters and trying to see who fit what, as in maybe Michelangelo the Curious, Raphael the Innovative, Rembrandt the Aesthetic, and Da Vinci the Practical. But as cold-blooded as Raphael was, he wasn't a total knockoff artist, and as sensible and scientific as Da Vinci was, he could also get very weird at times. Rembrandt may have cursed us with what would eventually become known as chiaroscuro, but he also brought art down to street level, where ordinary folks didn't just buy and enjoy it, they starred in it. Even Michelangelo, Grand Master of Marble that he was, spent a couple of years painting on his back because a Pope ordered him to -- not a whole lot of what-if involved there.

Then Picasso declined to be classified by a mere woman, Dali wanted to be labeled with an image of an elephant on stilt-legs mating with his ex-wife, and C├ęzanne called me a Philistine and locked himself in his studio, so I gave up. End result: I don't think great artists can be thus labelled. At least, not by me.

Humans are social critters, though, and when we're not busy slapping neat little tags on each other, we're conforming to common or shared visions and behaviors in order to fit into a certain established group. This isn't always a bad thing; without a certain amount of conformity we'd have nothing but chaos and anarchy, and as a species we generally don't deal too well with that. We fall back on our tribal instincts by needing the security of the group, and the group doesn't accept us unless we do what the group does.

However, stringent conformity discourages individuality, and if we're all doing what everyone else is, there is no opportunity for discovery and true self-expression. We become permanent residents of that cookie-cutter suburb world from L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time: everyone bounces their little red ball in the same way at the same time -- just as everyone else expects. Not much art in that, is there?

Writers are in the same boat as artists, I think, although we probably have more opportunity to be quietly non-conformist. A painting is right there, in your face; a story usually has to be read over a period of time. We have the chance to persuade the reader that our individual visions aren't the horrors that group-think may have led them to believe. We can't do that if we're serving up the same old tired watery tasteless conformist cabbage soup. We can use the same bowls as the cabbage pushers, but we need to sneak our readers a little gazpacho or miso or even a nice pot of cassoulet whenever possible.

You writers out there, where does your individuality come out in your work? Do you feel the need to conform is more or less important than your vision?

Cool art link: Elizabeth Groves Step-by-Step Demonstration


  1. Well, I'd better conform to my editor's vision or I'll have an unacceptable manuscript. *g* That's really the only conformity I'm worried about.

    That said, genre fiction has certain expectations that it's kind of our job to fulfill. In interesting and innovative ways, sure, but if you're writing a mystery, reveal whodunnit or people will be justifiably upset. There's nothing I hate more than being strung along by an author who didn't deliver on the story's premise in the end. Failing to do that isn't artistic, it's lazy.

  2. Anonymous7:33 AM

    I'm lucky enough to write for a couple of editors who mostly let my imagination take flight.

    And to write in a time when the romance genre is more open than it used to be.

    Of course, I also just turned in one of my oddest books yet, so we'll find out just how ...uh...non-conforming I can get away with.

  3. I don't know.

    I would like to say no, but it's really the subconscious that trips you up, isn't it?

    And, when you think about it, if you feel the need to conform, then wouldn't your visions also conform?

  4. Shi, I'll see your odd book and raise you. I have no idea what the response to my latest will be.

  5. I think, like most things in life, it's a matter of balance. Compromise and conform on the little things, and perhaps the parts where you're radical or innovative will both stand out and seem less threatening. Like you said, writers have the opportunity to be quietly non-conformist, and unlike painters, who expect initial reactions to their work, we have more time to tune the audience to our visions.

  6. As you read earlier in the week, I've really been struggling with expectations and worrying about how much to conform. As soon as I started "toning down" the nice pot of cassoulet I was brewing, I definitely got cabbage water. Ugh. So I dumped it out and went back to my original ingredients, no matter how bloody, violent, etc. etc. the characters may be. This is always something I've struggled with as a cross-genre fence sitter. When romance elements are present, there are certain rules you simply can't break, which unfortunately, for me, is like waving a red flag before a raging bull's nose. So I'm back on the fence, tottering a little, perhaps, but firmly refusing to jump off entirely.

  7. What is this "conform"?

    Tastes like sour milk.


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