Exploring Conceptual Differences Between Art and Literature

4 05 2010

Reading and writing have been changing the ways in which humans think since their invention hundreds of years ago. Despite the fact that, only a few hundred years ago, the majority of the population could not read or write, these skills have become not only advantageous but truly essential to functioning in daily life. These skills are in no way static, as developments in technology are constantly influencing the ways that we use them. In fact, the definitions of age-old words have been challenged by developments in technology in recent years and its impact on thought. One piece that questions the boundaries of two specific terms, namely art and literature, is “Chemical Landscapes Digital Tales” by Edward Falco. This piece, which is available on the Electronic Literature Organization’s website (http://collection.eliterature.org), combines mock “photographs” of landscapes (created in a laboratory with chemicals and a flashlight) with “tales” that are meant to parallel the feelings and ideas suggested by the photographs. This piece is not an example of legitimate writing, which can be defined as a product of mental power that encourages intellectual thought from the careful interpretation of words ordered very intentionally, because its purpose is really to create a feeling visually rather than intellectually, it contains minimal amounts of written words, and it doesn’t follow a specific direction or plot. Its characteristics are, however, rather reminiscent of a piece of artwork.

When most people think of literature, certain characteristics generally come to mind. One trait that is often associated with literature is that it is written with a purpose. According to www.merriam-webster.com, literature is “writings in prose or verse; especially: writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” On this note, Falco’s piece could not be considered literature because it is abstract in nature. Its purpose is to provide a window allowing the viewer to create a world with characters and a story, but the viewer must create this world on their own. The assistance granted by the piece itself is minimal; indeed, Falco intentionally designed the piece so that the viewer cannot even read all the text in one or two viewings. Critic Sven Birkerts would agree with the idea that this piece is not a legitimate example of a literary text. In his book, The Gutenberg Elegies, Birkerts says “…this is the problem facing the fiction writer in our time. Not only must he figure out what to do about the flatness of quotidian experience, but he must also deal with the fact that the greater part of human activities – which once may have stood out in relief – now take place on many tracks at once, with the individual in a state of distracted absorption” (206). Birkerts would likely argue that this piece has too much going on, in too many different mediums, to be considered a “literary text.” The viewer has to get an impression from a picture and speed read as much of the writing as they can in the four to five seconds that it appears on the page, and then they are expected, by Falco, to mentally create a story based on the experience.

Birkerts touches upon an important idea in his quote, the state of “distracted absorption.” There are many writers and other intellectuals, including Birkerts, who believe that because of the amount of information that is available in our current society, most people only graze the surface of topics and never learn to dig deeper into the ideas they are presented with. Distracted absorption implies that we as a society have a difficult time focusing on one activity at a time. Indeed, this can be seen particularly in students, who often report that they have to listen to music to concentrate on their schoolwork. In the case of this piece, interestingly enough, the distraction comes not from an outside source but from the piece itself. Just when the viewer starts to see the photograph the words appear. Just when they start to read the words, the whole thing, picture and words together, begins to fade. The entire sequence of events takes place in less than ten seconds.

One counter-argument that I could anticipate is that, since so many people merely skim the majority of what they read anyway, limiting the amount of text means that they will read and absorb a larger percentage of what they are being told. Indeed, in the modern world, information is available on a large scale and is capable of spreading at ever-increasing speeds through new technology and forms of expression, such as electronic texts. In his book Culture Jam, Kalle Lasn says, “There is more information in the Sunday New York Times than the average person living during the Renaissance would have absorbed in a lifetime” (23-24). He goes on to describe how this information is not only, to a large degree, useless, but furthermore almost always comes to us in a biased form or with some sort of spin on it. One could argue that by limiting the amount of information that one is presented with will encourage them to spend more time with it. While this idea makes sense in theory, it wouldn’t hold true in actuality. Limiting the amount of written text that an author provides to an audience will not help with the audience’s distracted absorption because it will actually encourage the audience to spend less time with the piece, as they will assume that there is less to take away from it.

Another counter-argument could be that this text is worthy of study because of the fact that it uses writing to make the reader think. Furthermore, it allows for different people to read it and interpret it in different ways. However, I would argue that the second quality, in spite of the first, makes it more like artwork than like a literary text. According to the online dictionary www.merriam-webster.com, art is “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also: works so produced.” As the written portion on each picture in the piece is based on the impression that Falco got from the picture, the work is a perfect fit with the aforementioned definition of art. The words are a minor aspect of the piece and are structured differently based on their location in the sky or on the ground. (When text appears over the picture’s “sky,” it is double-spaced; when it appears over the “ground,” it is single-spaced.) This structural difference makes even the written portion of the piece important visually, thus reinforcing the idea that this piece should be considered art as opposed to literature.

If this piece were to be in a non-electronic written form, it would most likely be some sort of picture book. Under the aforementioned definition, a picture book, while a written text, cannot be considered literature. While picture books are written with a purpose and do tell a story, they are not “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary). Literature can be digital, but it should not be primarily visual. The only exception to this rule would be a film, as the final product is based on a carefully developed script, which is a clear example of “writings having excellence of form or expression.” Films are essentially visual interpretations of novels or other forms of storytelling. They can be considered literature because literature can be defined as something that requires reading, which is the interpretation of words into the ideas that they represent. We “read” a film by interpreting the lines that the actors speak, which they memorized from a written script, into ideas. From the simple words they say, we derive complex concepts.

As our society moves farther and farther away from traditional mediums, such as books and newspapers, we will have to redefine old words, and also create new ones, in order to accurately describe the new forms of literature and art that are created in the future. The boundaries between simple words like “art” and “literature” are becoming increasingly blurred by innovations that fall somewhere in between the two categories. Until these words are redefined, however, or until new words are created to describe the gray area between those two ideas, Falco’s piece entitled “Chemical Landscapes Digital Tales” has to be defined as art, as it fits that description almost perfectly. While art is a wonderful aspect of culture, it is not literature.

Works Cited

“art.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2010. Merriam-Webster Online. 21 April 2010 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/art

Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. New York, NY: Faber and Faber, Inc, 1994. Print.

Lasn, Kalle. Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge – And Why We Must. New York: Quill, 2000.

“literature.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2010. Merriam-Webster Online. 20 April 2010 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/literature

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