Sunday, January 3, 2016

Fiction and Nonfiction

Muirhead Bone, World War I reportage sketch, 1918 (source)
Here's a philosophical question for discussion:

We divide writing into fiction and non-fiction. Why don't we divide art that way?

The answer seems obvious at first. Art is fictive because the images are created, not recorded.

We might regard photography as the non-fiction equivalent of art, since photography appears to capture reality without substantial human intervention. Compared to artwork made by hand, photographs seem more objective, more "true."

Yet photography involves innumerable aesthetic choices. And in the era of Photoshop and CGI, the boundary between art and photography has been blurred. Photography no longer holds the privileged position as a record of fact or truth.

Beatrix Potter, 'Studies of nine beetles' watercolor ©Warne&Co.
But supposing we stay just within the realm of handmade visual art. Can't we regard some art genres as non-fiction? Surely reportage on the battlefield or in the courtroom presents itself as a witness to true events just as much as the courtroom reporter with a notepad does. And natural history illustration presents scientific understandings with more saliency and truth than a photograph can do.

Isn't the artist dealing more in the world of truth than the writer? Art is nature filtered through a human temperament, but so is writing. By its very nature, writing is highly abstracted from reality. A journalistic reporter must convert observations into symbols that are far removed from sensory experience.

We can hardly think of writing without facing the division of fiction and nonfiction. Walk into any library or bookstore, and the demarcation is very evident. In film, the line is usually drawn between movies and documentaries.

In recent decades, there have been more and more works in film and literature that explore the boundary line of the two existing categories, such as historical fiction, novels based on real events, and biopics. Oddly enough, the library classifies books on elves, faeries, folklore, and mythology in the nonfiction section. My own book, Dinotopia deliberately blurs the boundary by presenting a fantasy world as if it were non-fiction.

At its most objective, the art of painting can bring us to an experience of the world that is closer to pure objectivity than writing can do, while forms of art can be placed on a gradient taking us into realms of pure subjectivity and invention.

I'm not saying that we should invent new categories for art, nor am I proposing that we should do away with them in writing. But I believe it's helpful to remind ourselves that the conception of fiction and nonfiction in writing is an arbitrary and inconsistent social construct. In the same way, the divisions of literature into categories of children's, young adult, and adult strikes me as arbitrary and misleading.

Devdutt Pattanaik said, "Nobody knows why we're alive; so we all create stories based on our imagination of the world; and as a community, we believe in the same story. In India, every person believes his/ her own mythosphere to be real. Indian thought is obsessed with subjectivity; Greek thought with objectivity."

If you have thoughts about this, I welcome them in the comments.


Eugene Arenhaus said...

Arguably, non-fiction visual art is photography. :)

Al Skaar said...

Does fiction and non-fiction mean the same thing as non-truth and truth? It seems to me that there is a subtle difference. I like the quote, attributed to Picasso, that "Art is a lie that tells the truth". That thought really blurs the boundary between the two and, I think, illustrates the difference between truth and non-fiction and fiction and non-truth.

Unknown said...

I wonder if it's a case of time invested. Looking at art requires less from the consumer in terms of time, and one can usually get a sense of "fiction/nonfiction" by looking paired with reading the info card at the museum, magazine, or book. At the bookstore, they are all just rectagles with no way of knowing what is inside except the signs marking fiction/historical, etc.

Come to think of it, Museums seem to organize things much like a bookstore: 17th Century European Painting in one wing, Iranian in another.

Still, David's Napoleon is about as fictional as Gerome's gladiator, or any Pieta, so I wonder how they would classify the nuance of fiction/non fiction.

Rubysboy said...

Maybe Realism from life vs all other styles (impressionism, expressionism, cubism,...) is a close analog for Non-fiction vs Fiction.
In writing non-fiction an author claims to be striving for truth, trying to find words that accurately describe what he or she has seen, heard, experienced; whereas in writing fiction an author makes no such claim, instead the stance is 'I made this up.'

In painting a realistic picture from life, the artist claims to be showing the world as she or he experienced it; whereas in other styles the artist clearly 'distorts' common experience in order to make an aesthetic impact or may even say "I made this up."

An artist working in a realist style can, of course, invent scenes - James Gurney is a great living example -- but so can an author write books that seem to be documentaries but are in fact made up. Much fiction is this way - Robinson Crusoe, Moby Dick. We may only recognize the work as fiction because the author tells us he or she made it up - "the characters in this story bear no resemblance to any persons living or dead.....".

Perhaps the Fiction/Non-fiction distinction based on artist intent is already evident in the visual arts and hence there is no need to tell the viewer that Dinotopia is fiction. We can just compare it with our own experience and knowledge and we instantly know that the artist made it up. With some works -- Washington Crossing the Delaware comes to mind -- the artist tries to reconstruct what it might have been like to be there with Washington and his troops, so it's fictional re-creation, analogous to historical fiction.

stevmorpix said...

No one mentioned illustration.
Illustration of real things- non-fiction?
Illustration of imagined things, proposed designs, slightly altered things-fiction?
Portrait painting?
A portrait including "warts"-non-fiction?
A portrait "air brushed"- fiction?
There are a lot of worms in this can.

Unknown said...

Perhaps we can say that the difference between fiction and non-fiction is equivalent to the difference between art and photography: the kind and level of trust we invest in each.
Photography has been in common use for more than a century and a half, so we are familiar with its potential for manipulation and deception (no one will insist that Ansel Adams' magnificent pints are accurate and unretouched recordings of reality), but we trust National Geographic photography to accurately represent its subjects. In fact, of course, personal bias and intent is implicit in the choice of subject, lighting, angle of view, etc., as well as manipulations in development (or Photoshop), printing or presentation. The representational arts exist in a similar kind of flexible understanding of purposeful editing.
The written word is also perceived in the same way.
What we can say is that ours is a very nuanced communication environment, and we none of us have an absolutely accurate understanding of our world, internal or external. Makes things a bit scary, unless we have a source of certainty that there exists some benevolent all-knowing intelligence in control.

baf said...

Everybody lies. We even lie to ourselves. Whether it is with a camera or traditional tools of the artist, whether it is literature or any other form of communication, we present our own individual twisted perception no matter how honest we are. On the other hand it is said that for a story to be able to suspend disbelief it must be true to life, it must contain some kind of truth. And for art the same applies. Art, even fantasy art, must be infused with life, the life of the artist. So I guess you could say Dinotopia is just as true as... oh... that famous portrait of George Washington, even though we all know that a portrait artist does try to make his subject look good while still retaining the essence of that personality. "What is truth?" is as difficult to answer as "What is art?" I think it is much simpler simply to say "We all lie."

Don Ketchek said...

Writing is divided between fiction and non-fiction simply because we want to know whether we are reading about real events or if it is a made-up story. I can't recall a single instance where I looked at a drawing or painting and asked the same question.

Sometimes there is no reason to get deep and philosophical, in my opinion. This is one of those times.

Lou said...

Hear, hear! Don. Thank you.

seadit said...

Great discussion. I frankly don't have the experience or knowledge with the world of art or literature to weigh in with any kind of educated opinion, but I just came back from spending the holidays in Southern California where I had the opportunity to visit the Getty Villa where they have an exhibition of watercolors by Edward Dowel and Simone Pomadi of Greece's landscape in 1805. The images were never created as 'works of art' but as accurate illustrations created using a rather large camera obscura, and are essentially the equivalent of color photographs they're so well done and accurate. Calling these anything but non-fiction I think would be an insult to those responsible for creating them as they were interested in capturing things as they were, yet they're also valued today for their artistic merit. I found them inspiring on several levels.

A link for those interested:
If you're in the area it's well worth the visit.

James Gurney said...

Seadit, I'm glad you mentioned that perfect example of "non-fiction art"—a term by which we might define not only the attributes of the art itself, but the expectations the viewer brings to it. Much art before photography carried the expectation of accuracy in the same way that journalistic writing does. That's one of the productive benefits of the fiction and nonfiction categories: they reflect differing expectations that both the public and the artist brings to the work. In the case of writing, both fiction and nonfiction are equally valid and respected, and as you say in the case of those early 19th century topographical landscapes, images that are accountable to the "factual" or "truthful" can also be aesthetically beautiful.

Don, questioning basic assumptions is a tendency of mine that I realize doesn't charm everyone. It often got me in trouble with some of my teachers in school.

Baf, I agree, everyone lies. I think that's the heart of the matter. The funny thing about fiction writing is that the best lies are based on the most truth.

James, glad you mentioned Photoshop and National Geographic, because I remember in the late '80s or early '90s there was a big scandal about NatGeo using Photoshop to move a pyramid in a shot, and I'm surprised we haven't heard more from them about what their editors regard as OK (presumably color grading, levels work, HDR) and what's not OK (presumably moving or deleting elements)

James Gurney said...

Stevmorpix, yes, it's a can with worms, just as writing is, and I find that when I try to apply the template to art, it makes me see pictures differently because it makes me examine what expectations I'm bringing to a piece.

Rubysboy, I like the way you're thinking about it. Maybe pictures are easier to judge for their truthfulness. When I read early 19th century artists' ideas of what sort of truth they bring to their art, it's a different sense of truth than we think about now for the most part....more in line with Platonic ideal thinking, that is trying to paint the "type" of something, which is quite different from surface appearances. That's why Frederic Church or Asher Durand would select or combine elements to create more "typical" landscapes, rather than one that looked like a snapshot.

John-Paul, I see what you're saying, and good point....we need more classification and dust-jacket presentation with writing because we can't categorize them at a glance without their packaging the way we can do with images. Also, good example with Geromes gladiators, which were very carefully researched and looked at with the expectation that they fit with modern archaeological thinking. Alma Tadema's work grew out of discoveries in Pompeii. And many of the painters of Bible stories such as Tissot were beginning to show Biblical scenes based on the current ideas of what they "really" must have looked like.

Al, yes, how and when we separate truth from fact is probably the deepest question in this thought experiment. I often ask myself why I feel justified to move or change something when I'm sketching an observed scene. Photographing a plein-air painting in front of the actual scene, and then sharing that with the world makes those changes immediately evident. And doing that is a recent practice created by the Internet.

Sesco said...

As a disclaimer, in a bookstore I tend to avoid the fiction. My justification goes like this: fiction is for entertainment; I devote little time to entertainment except for the DVD movie or two per week; I love learning, therefore the impulse toward non-fiction. This is also the reason I tend to avoid abstract art in that I feel that I am witnessing someone's emotional release instead of the skill that inspires me. That said, I believe the advent of the camera instantly rendered a large subset of art irrelevant, that of accurate recording. From that moment on, no human hand could render as accurately that which a camera captured, even though the artists continued to record as they have always done. But non-fiction literature is not analogous to the accuracy of a camera, due to the inherent bias of the writer, whether sympathetic or hostile or any degree between. Describing the horrors encountered by liberating (a biased word) soldiers entering Germany in WWII would pale in comparison to the photos taken and this effect would likely have little to do with bias; however, the same 'liberating' would be covered in non-fiction in an entirely different way if penned by a German soldier, a prisoner of war, or a housewife in DesMoines. I had never considered imaginative realism until I bumped into the work of James Gurney. I knew that I liked the liberties taken by imaginative illustrators, but I also sensed the regard in which illustrators were held in comparison to great painters and I, to this day, do not understand this. The concept to paint that which the camera cannot capture appeals to me: first, because there is an enormous amount of talent out there that will always be able to paint better than I; second, because I don't want to be forever competing with the camera's ability; and third, because I believe our imaginations separate us from the pack, it makes our art unique. I don't believe painters intend to be camera perfect when they undertake a landscape. Just look at the various interpretations of the same view in any workshop. I do not consider a photograph to be art, UNTIL the photographer begins to modify with filters, photoshop, etc. Here again the imagination is in play. In non-fiction books I look for content, hoping for a decent writing style. In paintings I think I am initially drawn by content, and then I look more closely for the skill involved, something perhaps only a painter would do, but something my wife would never have done until after she learned from me what sorts of things to look for. I don't think anyone should hesitate to use their imaginations when considering composition unless accuracy is your goal. Artists must acknowledge the impact of the camera, it's strong points and its weaknesses. I am as disappointed in Hollywood's willful use of imagination in movies depicting historical events as I am in photographers who attempt to deceive with Photoshop. I suppose an informed appreciator of art is as important to the art market as an informed citizen is for the effective functioning of a representative republic. I don't see that evolution in either case.

James Gurney said...

Sesco, well reasoned, and an eloquent argument for imagination. Incidentally, Armand Cabrera did a great post yesterday on Imagination and Memory in NC Wyeth's work:

Unknown said...

Even Michelangelo's drawings and paintings are a questionable bit of non-fiction, despite their convincing qualities. He adds/invents some extra muscles here and there, or at least makes them strain and do things they normally would not, as means of expression. Likewise, slippery flatterers like Sargent left out a lot to accentuate a contrived "beauty". Michelangelo's teacher, Ghirlandaio, famously painted "warts and all" on one great portrait, but did his best to flatter on others. Because "realism" in an art work is dependent on factors that exceed our limited visual acuity and may demand a suppression of extraneous detail (must we include every pore, a la Chuck Close?) in order to communicate a "scientific understanding" of a particular aspect of the subject, the line between "truth" and "fiction" is blurry, indeed.

Rich said...

How about music ?o)

Perhaps military marches would pertain to non-fiction.

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Sesco said...

Rich, I also thought about the comparisons with music, but James' question related to books. But it is an interesting comparison nonetheless. Throughout all comparisons it seems that communication is at the center. It is easy for me to understand the communication transferring from writer to reader in non-fiction books. The communication that allegedly occurs between Painter/Composer/Novelist and viewer/listener/reader is, for me, much more difficult to grasp. An en plein air painter may paint a scene because of mood/color/composition/etc. and then hang it up for all to see. What is he communicating? "Here, I saw this, interpreted it, and if you have the same reaction I did then I have communicated well."? I'm wondering if this is the communication we are talking about. A composer creates a piece that is intended to evoke an emotion. If that emotion manifests in the listener then the composer has communicated well? From military marches to Yoko Ono's experiments, what is being communicated? Only emotions? A fiction writer is trying to communicate what? A good tale that engages many emotions with every chapter and an overall emotion at the last chapter? Getting back to James's questions regarding art as fiction vs non-fiction, in the communication of a painting, is there accuracy of emotion? Can an artist attempt to convey a primary/solid/undiluted emotion vs an ambivalent/fictional emotion? A composer can take the listener on a roller-coaster ride of emotions, or explore a lengthy score in one emotion. Is intended disharmony the fiction of music? Which suggests that intended disharmony in painting, writing, and composing is the fiction aspect, whereas harmony is the non-fiction aspect. Does any of this make sense to someone else? Perhaps, IF we are communicating, we are communicating something other than emotion?

Ken said...

I think a key point of art/illustration as fiction vs. non-fiction lies in the context of how it is used and presented. A painting or drawing of a dinosaur hanging on a wall with no text accompanying it could be taken as fantasy or reality depending on how it was executed and how it aligns with what the viewer perceives is accurate.

If the dinosaur painting has "Jurassic Park" or "Xenozoic Tales" written across it, you know it's likely fiction. If the painting has "National Geographic" written across it or "Predatory Dinosaurs of the World: A Complete Illustrated Guide", then you know it likely a non-fiction illustration based on available facts and is executed in a style that is good enough to convey the information required.

If the dinosaur artwork is part of science museum exhibit on dinosaurs or hanging in a gallery featuring the best of fantasy art, that again changes how the art is perceived.

Regarding Michelangelo's paintings or stand-alone portraits unless you know the motive of the artist or the person commissioning the artist, then the artwork is open to interpretation of how real or true they are.

I think part of what is throwing off this discussion is that the content of this blog is primarily about "imaginative realism", which blurs the real and unreal. An engineering drawing of a gear must be accurate for a machinist to make a part from but would not be confused as a "real" looking drawing. However that same gear can be drawn by Boris Artzybasheff very accurately in a completely fantastical machine or painted by James Gurney to make his Dinotopian helicoid geochronograph or scroll-reading machine look more functionally real. The range of styles of how the gear is drawn or painted is vast as shown by the variety of styles a Tookah was represented in Mr. Gurney's "Art By Committee: Tookah" contest from 2009. Just about any representative style could work, but if the representation doesn't convey to the viewer what the creator wanted, then it has failed no matter how simple or how expertly rendered the art is.