The Art of Categorizing Creation

Diagrams from Laurence Sterne representing “the lines I moved in through my first, second, third, and fourth volumes.”

Part 1: Theory

Section I, or Why This Article Has Two Parts, Four Sections, and an Intermission

We have been dividing stories into chewable bites for as long as we’ve been telling them. Perhaps most famously with Aristotle’s three-act-structure, despite the fact it was devised by Syd Field in 1979 and Aristotle argued for a two- or sixteen-act structure. There are many more examples of story-analysts cutting up their narrative steak into neat bits before digestion, bits like: ‘Call to Action’ and ‘Gift of the Goddess’ in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey; or the ‘Save the Cat Moment’ and ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ in Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. These arrangements are aimed at helping script-writers understand standard story structure so they may create the next batch of formula-formed cultural contributions. These structures not only comment on existing stories, they also create new ones. Commedia dell’arte is wonderful example of this: a theatrical genre featuring the same stock characters every time, allowing the play to quickly delve into the action without having to establish all the stories’ conflicting personalities. A sword-wielding, thin-mustached, thick-collared man arrives on stage and is immediately recognized as Il Capitano, a self-styled braggadocious captain. We know what he wants and how he got here before he ever opens his mouth. Movies still work with similar frameworks to this very day, not as strangely salient as before, but stereotypes like ‘angry black lady’, ‘stoner bro’ and ‘all American no-nonsense soldier’ still help audiences grasp what a character’s role will be before nuance or tact has time to rear their heads into whatever third rate horror movie they are attempting to improve. Zooming out, one can regard our entire modern model of genre as a similar structuring device.

One unifying factor of all these categorizations of art is that all are overgeneralizing, oversimplifying, and overly uncomplicated devices painstakingly attempting to simplify the most nuanced of human creation. Joseph Campbell, Syd Fields, and Blake Snyder’s cinema-structures have led to a decennium of stupidly predictable shlock; if you’ve read all their work, you can see the poster of a Pixar movie and correctly guess the entire story before the film ever hits the silver screen. Commedia dell’arte led to interesting stories but characters quickly turn boring and the modern incarnations of stock characters constantly operate somewhere between dull and discriminatory. Genre too, has come under fire in recent years. Lil Nas X’s smash country-rap-hit Old Town Road being removed from the country-hitlist instantly comes to mind, with people rightfully asking ‘what makes this not country?’. The hopeless attempts of Nashville to define their genre in a way that excludes Lil Nas X, a genre that can incorporate so much it cannot really be called a single genre anymore, led many to answer the question for them: ‘because you don’t like that the singer is black’ (Mosley).

Should we discard the categorizations entirely? Break our chains constructed with definitions and constrictions, story-set-ups and climaxes, stock characters and copy-paste-fiction? Maybe in this era of binaries being rejected and spectrums being welcomed a spreadsheet approach to art is no longer relevant. Still, by rejecting categorization entirely we would be losing something as old as storytelling itself.

Is there a way of maintaining the craft of art-categorization without letting it negatively influence creation? Yes: we make art-structuring itself an artform. I believe a fitting name for this new genre would be…  Artegories

Section II, or Artform is an Artform is an Artform is an Artform

Art is undefinable, largely because this indefinability is an essential part of its definition. The closest, I believe, we have ever come to defining art in a wholly inclusive way is to say that if a person believes what they have created is art, it is art. Besides this, there has to be a transference of emotion as well, “others are infected by [the artist’s] feelings”, Tolstoy stated. Both these demands can be met in a complete and faithful way by artegories. Firstly, one only has to believe their created structure is art, and it is. Secondly, these structures, like the art they so gleefully build picket fences in, transfer feelings, they teach us about life and ourselves. Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, which dictates the ordeal our heroes have to traverse before they can emerge victorious on the other side, battered but bettered, teaches us that we have to struggle before we improve, but more importantly, that we have to keep going when we suffer, because a better world may not be ahead, but a better version of ourselves most definitely is. A rather breathtaking lesson. It is hard to imagine Campbell wasn’t aware of his structure’s capacity to teach us about life when reading his structuralizing work, which holds such prophetic quotes as “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure”.

And when seventeenth-century Italians grinned widely upon seeing a harlequin-faced actor prance onto the floorboards – was it the character that roused their emotion? Or was it the structure that revealed to them Zanni the servant-clown had just emerged, that stirred their laughter? I believe it was the latter.

Like the complicated constructions of Alexander Calder or the stringy statues of Alberto Giacometti, artegory-structures bend creation in odd places, create meaning through presence as well as absence, and are filled with remarkable artistry. They can be envisaged in graphs and charts resembling Da Vinci’s anatomical sketches, adding a visual element to the artform. Frankly, Aristotle, Campbell and Snyder’s work become considerably more interesting when viewed as pieces of art separated from what they discuss.

These lofty theories bear little weight without application. To prove the potential of my newly birthed art genre, after a brief intermission, I will produce its first conscious contribution, followed by a brief analysis of the piece. The art-categorization will be, as all of this genre is, oversimplifying and overgeneralizing, but now it will not claim to be anything else but art; it holds no hidden truth beneath all of human creativity, it is no restriction we can place on whoever we would like to exclude; it merely attempt to convey feeling in a new way; to meditate on what makes life worth living: art.

Intermission, or Can Dictionaries Be Art?

artegory [art-i-gawr-ee, -gohr-ee]

noun

  1. The art of categorizing, structuring, defining, or classifying fiction and art in a manner that conveys feeling.

Verb

  1. To produce (a piece of artegory).

Part 2: Practice

Section III, or HyperTheory, an art piece by Arthur Mulder

All fiction writing that effectively conveys emotion onto the individual reader or listener can be divided into two categories: hyperbole and hyper-specificity.

Hyperbolic-fiction creates massive exaggeration through which we can more clearly understand our less extravagant selfhood and our milder world. American Psycho portrays yuppie snob Patrick Bateman as a completely insane, sadistic, homicidal psychopath, remorselessly lying, fucking, and murdering his way through Wall Street. Not all Wall Street types are actual coldblooded killers, but this overstatement of their shallow heartlessness makes us realize the actual immorality of their existence. Dystopian science-fiction works incredibly well in this genre, showing an enlarged version of our current reality, laying bare the faults of the contemporary with a funhouse-mirror-image of the future. In hyperbolic-fiction nuance is still essential for the writing to be impactful, so more space is required for this nuance to thrive. This brand of storytelling thus fits best with long-form-fiction. Still, artforms that pride themselves in their occasional lack of subtlety, like punk and post-punk music, can cleverly use hyperbolic-fiction to add power and punch to their lyrical content.

Perhaps this is why writers have largely fail to capture Trump in literature, he is so much larger than life, exaggerated in each of his features, that already verge on self-parody in their own right, that enlarging him further really isn’t possible while maintaining the nuance required for this artform to thrive. Punk-music may be the perfect genre for the Trump-era.

The other side of this spectrum of creation is hyper-specificity. By focusing on the highly personal, the small and unique, a far greater emotional response can be produced than with platitudes recognized by all. A prime example of this in recent years is the songwriting of Phoebe Bridgers, who, by focusing on the hyper-personal, says oceans more than any generic, ‘you left me and now I’m lonely’ songs can ever produce. Her texts are about taking psychedelics and going to the supermarket; about seeing billboards pass on the highway as Midwestern country blares from the radio; about being called by an ex while strolling through Kyoto; about being stirred from restless sleep by ambulances passing her one-room-apartment. None of these things have ever happened to me, but they touch me in a way little else ever has. I remember laying on my fake-wood floorboards listening to Bridgers sing about things I have never experienced and never will, while feeling truly understood for the first time in a long time. An entire genre of poetry is based on this principle of specificity: Imagism. These modernist poems give surface level reflections of small occurrences, William Carlos Williams describes The Red Wheelbarrow, or Ezra Pound briefly notes his view In a Station of the Metro. These small portraits of everyday and miniscule things manage to say more about existence in a few lines than most encyclopedic walls of philosophical text manage to do with all their theoretical might.

Section IV, or an Analysis of Arthur Mulder’s HyperTheory

The fledgling artegory-artist’s debut work both show the potential of the genre as a whole, but also reveals the shortcomings of its author. HyperTheory is a theory that is entirely believable while reading, yet the moment the reader emerges from the piece holes start to form. Nevertheless, when viewing the piece as an experience, this is no great fault.

The tonal consistency of the piece is excellent. The use of examples, which are almost entirely of bleak works of fiction, create a dour, but still appreciative atmosphere. This feeling is enhanced by its broader message. HyperTheory reveals the human need for excess in a remarkable way; humans either need the most extreme version of something, or the smallest, most individualistic version of it, for anything to be truly impactful. They need Hyper, as the title of the work suggests: a shrewd statement on contemporary click-bait-culture and gruesome-headline-media.

However, the work is bogged down by both its lack of historical context and its simpleness. All examples used to illustrate the structure of the piece are from the post-WWI period onwards, revealing a lack of knowledge of previous work, or an unwillingness to interact with it. The piece’s contemporary focus is impressive, but it loses much of its power due to lack of historical grounding.

The piece also confines all art in a binary, a grossly uncomplicated and frankly shortsighted view of artistic expression.

However, this simpleness, this absence of nuance, can also be read as a meta-textual reference to the art piece itself partly falling under the hyperbolic-fiction category it itself theorizes. This then also allows it to comment on Trump in a way that the theory itself condones: without subtlety, like punk music. The section of unnuanced art contains an unnuanced analysis, and the section on the hyper-personal contains a hyper-personal section about listening to Phoebe Bridger’s music; a well-crafted internal contrast.

In conclusion, Mulder’s HyperTheory is an impressive first stab at the artegory genre by a promising new artist, but the work is bogged down by an antiquated reliance on binary thinking and a lack of historical awareness. The piece is seemingly aware of these shortcomings, but self-awareness is not an excuse for poor craftsmanship. I will continue to watch this young artist’s career with great interest and hope his work grows in complexity and ambition along with his experience in the artform.

Written by Arthur Mulder

Sources:

Mosley, Christopher “’Old Town Road,’ by Lil Nas X, Is Forcing Billboard – and Country Music – to Reckon with Its Roots.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 9 Apr. 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/old-town-road-lil-nas-x-forcing-billboard-country-music-ncna992521.

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1 Comment

  1. Isa says:

    very smart man thank you for good theory I give 4 stars

    (I love you!!!!)

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