Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Purpose of Art

I'd like to use this post to discuss the lessons of a quote I once heard, but have been unable to identify the source of. Nevertheless, I love it. If any of you know, please tell me. It's short and sweet. Here it is:

The purpose of art is to conceal itself.

This is something I try to remember whenever I'm shooting or editing a video. If my technique calls attention to what I'm doing, rather than what's happening in "front" of the camera, then my approach is wrong. This is the problem I have with a lot of films and even more videos. They seem like the creators want to say "look what I can do!" when they should be saying something completely different. I think this is part of what Trevor talks about when he discusses form and content as equally important to the meaning of a film. Effects for the sake of effects miss the boat. Stunts for the sake of stunts can cheapen an otherwise good production. It should be clear from this that I interpret the word "art" in the quote to mean craft, although other interpretations are interesting as well.

I can think of two movies I've seen that remind me of this. One was Tomorrow Never Dies. After seeing it in High School, a friend commented to me that it was "a movie about stunts." That was relevant to our purpose because we were in a performing group that was doing a James Bond show and we were two of the three stunt men. Nevertheless, my friend's comment shows that whatever substance was in that movie was lost, at least on him, by the distracting elements we sometimes refer to as "Hollywood."

The other movie was Transformers. I didn't like the movie for its brazen sexuality which, I felt, dominated any redeeming messages. Having said that, however, I was impressed with the robots, and not just because they were "cool." I remember hearing that Optimus Prime had over 10,000 moving parts.

Why do I mention this? because if I were to really see a giant alien robot walking around, I would expect to see moving parts. The effects "sold" the characters. There were things going on inside the robots that were unconscious, just like our lungs and hearts moving independent of our direct commands. Obviously, the robots weren't real, but the art that created them was believable. I agree that the best effect is one you don't know is there, but in the context of Transformers, such an approach would have meant a movie without its title characters. I don't think that's the spirit of this idea. In other words, had the robots been real, I don't know that the film would have been any different.

Now, even if you agree with me on this, you may wonder what it has to do with LDS cinema. Aside from general filmmaking topics, I argue that the "preachyness" we read about so often and that is so much spoken against as a weakness of LDS films would be less blatant if we tried to encode our messages with this quote in mind. If, instead of having a didactic conversation between characters about gospel doctrines, we actually demonstrated those doctrines in practice - showing the effects of their acceptance or rejection as Brigham Young said, we may see better results. That's just one idea.

Alma 32 has something to say about this that I'm going to discuss in a later post (part 3 of my Light, Truth, and Spirit series), but I do want to point out that Christ taught often in parables. Why? Well, among other reasons, to conceal the doctrines the parables contained from those who do not have "ears to hear." By concealing the doctrines, he spared the unbelieving the condemnation they would be under for hearing him teach the truths directly and not obeying. He used stories with a deeper meaning for those prepared to search for it.

This post comes immediately after having a discussion with someone who does not feel that movies, particularly fictional movies, are a suitable vehicle for serious discussion of issues. He thinks that those who search movies for deep meanings are usually over-analyzing. That's a bit oversimplified, but still. Obviously, I disagree, but I liken his attitude to that of one who views the Savior's parables as nice stories with a good message.

To be clear, and because he may well read this, I know he doesn't think that way about the parables. He has given some very insightful interpretations of some of those in the past. But I'm talking about movies. Not all films try to be like this, but I think films that are interested in art should.

What do you think?


Trevor said...

My initial reaction is to take issue with the statement. I've heard it before but more often seen its perspective mirrored in art.

My instinct is that it stops being art when it seeks to hide itself. When the form becomes transparent it becomes deceptive. Hiding what it does to the viewers. There are times for transparency, because to reveal everything is obscenity, but to reveal the form is a major tenet of Modernism. So this quote is suggesting that Modernism is not art... which just seems silly.

I would argue that the scriptures (particularly the Book of Mormon as well as Modern Revelation) are, in one aspect, Modernist because they consistently refer to their artifice. They remind us constantly of the method in which they were created and who they are written by.

The Old Testament (especially the books of Moses) are less so, but it would be hard to convince me that the writings of the prophets were completely incompatible with a modernist reading.

Seeking to conceal form seems neither artful, nor pure to my mind.

MoJo said...

In Adam's post, I think what he is talking about is the literary equivalent of "taking you out of the story."

When you can see the elements of its creation (or its mistakes) it serves to disrupt the continuity of storytelling. But I might be wrong on what he's trying to say. Apparently, I'm not firing on all cylinders today.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...


I think I agree with you to an extent. I'm not arguing for an utterly transparent form. I'm saying that form can be distracting if it becomes the point of the film - if it is emphasized at the expense of content. But maybe I'm just misunderstanding you.

Let me explain more clearly what I mean, and then you can tell me if I got your point right.

I think that it's a bad thing when I watch a movie that makes me think, "That light was placed there to accentuate something cool but utterly without meaning." Or worse yet, "That shot didn't do anything but show off what the lighting designer can do."

Contrast that with, say, the shots from Joe Versus the Volcano, which I consider a great religious allegory, where the musical lamp on Joe's desk contrasts starkly with the greenish fluorescent lights of the office. Ordinarily, that combination of lights would look sloppy or amateurish. In that context, it was meaningful. It was an obviously deliberate choice, so in that sense the art did't conceal itself. It was plain what the director was trying to say. But it did not turn the movie into a story about the director, which is what I'm getting at with this quote.

What I love is to see a movie that takes me from one place to the next without pausing to say, "hang on, I've gotta show you this really neat trick I can do." That doesn't preclude any creative possibilities, but it seeks to not use anything gratuitously. Camera tricks for the sake of camera tricks turn me off and seem, to use your words, neither artful nor pure.

I agree with you that it is generally good to remember who is giving the film its voice, and how.

Th. said...


It's weird how everyone's been talking about this lately....

(Sorry I don't have more to say but I feel worn out after Schmetterling and Motley Vision.)

Benjamin Thevenin said...

Adam, thanks for thinking and writing about stuff you think is important. I love the opportunity that blogs allow for open discourse among ordinary people. And I think that among our discussions should be negotiations of concepts like art and LDS cinema. But I also think its important that we pace ourselves.

It seems to me that art has many purposes, and there are many potential LDS cinemas. If we're too eager to assign single definitions to these concepts, we may end the discussion instead of starting it (or we may just start an argument).

I like Trevor's title for the blog--the "toward" is the key word for me. It implies that our dialogue about these subjects is more important than arriving at any certain conclusion on them. And while these discussions won't be productive (or even exist) if we don't share insights with one another, I think it is important that we communicate these insights with humility.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...


Without trying to whine, I'm frustrated. I always get this response and I never mean it that way. I hope I didn't seem arrogant in posting this or any other idea. By no means did I intend to imply that this is the only purpose of art, or that there should be only one standard for anything we do. I realize how deeply personal the things we're talking about are. I hope I am allowed to have my personal feelings and ideas too.

The beginning of my post states that I want to talk about what lessons can be drawn from that quote, not to hold it forth as the great end-all and be-all, or even as absolutely true. I just wanted to talk about it. Like I said, I don't know who said it, but I think we can learn from it.

That's the approach I take with all my posts. I know my written voice tends to sound superior or self-assured at least, but if you heard me say the same words in real life, I like to think you'd understand their spirit better. Please keep in mind when you read my posts and comments that I don't intend to have the final say or offer the ultimate opinion, no matter how my words may sound. It's a weakness of mine.

If you read carefully, and I'm not implying that you don't, you'll see a lot of conditional wording in my writing - things like "may" or "can" or "might" that indicate that I'm not trying to dictate the one right answer. These are just thoughts that I have. That's my trouble I guess. I think "out loud" on this blog, so to speak. Even I don't always agree with myself after thinking it over more, and I usually say so when I change my mind. But that doesn't diminish the value of the process in my opinion, and all sincere perspectives deserve to be expressed.

My comments are meant to be exploratory, not pedagogical. I'm sorry if it seems otherwise. I really can't figure out what to change to make it better. Maybe you can help me.

Benjamin Thevenin said...

Sorry Adam if it seems like I'm telling you how and what to write. I'm all about seeking to understand the author's intent, and I do believe that you have the best intentions in your posts. And I do appreciate the conditional language you use in your post.

I think I'm just frustrated with how blog discussions are too often unproductive because our communications (mine included) are too authoritative or snarky or uninformed or combative or whatever. And that's not to say that you are doing those things. And I don't even know if its my place to make these comments, but I think this blog has a good thing going for it. So, all of us need to be extra careful that our words are carefully chosen.

I hope that my comments are received well. I don't want to nitpick. I just want good discussions on this important topic to continue. Sorry if I've offended.

PatE said...

Hi, I've never posted a comment here. I'm an old classmate of Trevor's. I wanted to post to agree with Trevor and maybe offer the end of a thread as to where the offered definition of art came from.
Goethe and Schiller stated their ideal of Weimar Classicism to be the concealment of pain. In other words, they sought to conceal pain with beauty (art). This resulted in their trial toward autonomous art, in their case, to literature. Karl Philipp Moritz and Schiller were both avid proponents of concealing the artist and his/her method. The quote may have stemmed from their extensions (albeit very misguided conclusions) of Kant's philosophy. I say misguided because Kant wouldn't have agreed, and I personally think, as Goethe concluded, that the subject is less important than the method in many cases.
To consider that which conceals itself would be to disregard Brechtian modernist theory and efforts. For Brecht, the method, the means, and the artist were as much a part of the art as the finished "product." In fact, being that the Verfremdungseffekt was central to the role and function of his art, the audience was perhaps the central figure of art for him. This is to say nothing of aesthetics and reception, but rather the process of being made aware of and evaluating themes. If art conceals itself, is it useful to the experiencer?
If art simply IS, as Schiller and Moritz would have liked, and existed as an autonomous testament to only itself, it lacks something essential. Schiller and Moritz considered the lack of an artist's presence in the work to be the ideal. Goethe, while working toward an evaluation of art and beauty, was ultimately an ironist, which is inconsistent with autonomy. Goethe realized that concealment is either impossible or unproductive. It may not be impossible, but when/if concealed, what is expressed? Beauty? Can that be expressed, or can the viewer only be made aware of it by the artist?
I started with the intent on giving a possible source of your quote and ended up letting my thoughts roam. Just so you all know, I'm not a film student by any means. I studied German Literature and I had some extra time to comment and don't mean this as criticism. I just thought the quote was interesting and hoped to add to the discussion. I'll keep checking back on the blog. There's always some decent food for thought here.

whitney said...

I'm thinking of absurdist plays right now that can inspire many religious and spiritual moments (Waiting for Godard, for me) but constantly call attention to the form. Taking a Brechtian approach to cinema might cause us to step back from films and access their messages and formal aspects and artfulness, something your friend doesn't seem to want to do.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...


You haven't offended, only brought out my frustration over an issue I can't seem to get past: namely, that in spite of my best efforts, my writing is so often stuck with the labels of arrogance or closed-mindedness, as evidenced by Whitney's comment. I had no right to take it out on you, I just don't know what to change. I assure you that my goals for this blog are the same as yours.


I'm truly sorry if you really understood my comments that way. I don't know how else to say this other than that I thought the quote had value for discussion. I'm not invalidating any other perspective or even saying that this quote embodies my perspective. I only think we can learn from it - good and bad.

I also think that form can be oppressive of content at times if inappropriately handled. I have no desire to minimize its importance or discourage the study of it. If anything, my comments were meant to do the opposite. I thought I was arguing that we be keenly aware of form and its impact on the film - in other words, that we make sure the form is conducive to the purpose for which we are creating a particular piece of art and not contrary to it. In my opinion, this can be seen as a form of concealment through unity. That's how I interpreted this quote, and I recognized in my original post that there are many other useful ways to interpret it, regardless of what it may have originally been intended to mean. You notice I say the purpose, and not the message.

I'm not requiring agreement from anyone here, but I am seeking to be understood. So many comments have indicated my failure on that head.

If my lack of philosophical references makes me seem ignorant, I'm sorry. My studies have been secondary to my family. That doesn't make me ignorant, although I readily acknowledge myself to be by far the least of those who participate here.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...


I appreciate your insights. I thought your thoughtful questions deserved answering.

If art conceals itself, is it useful to the experiencer?

I would argue that it can be. This might be a strange example, but I immediately thought of the LDS song, A Window to His Love that was so popular when I was a teenager. Is not the concept of that song that a transparent medium allows for a purer message? I'm not saying that I agree entirely (and this is a separate train of thought from the one I wrote the original post in), but I think that to some extent, religious art can effectively seek to conceal itself, like sunlight passing through water. If the water is still, the light is more clearly seen.

It may not be impossible, but when/if concealed, what is expressed? Beauty? Can that be expressed, or can the viewer only be made aware of it by the artist?

I think that in most cases it is impossible, and I again remind you that I'm speaking differently than I did in my original post. I turn again to nature for an analogy. Would a clear summer day be considered beautiful if not for the Spirit of Christ within us that tells us it is so? Or is it because the elements that make up sunshine, a cool breeze, and a pasture of colorful flowers give themselves to us as beautiful independent of their creator's opinion about them?

In this example, I think the artist can be considered as analogous to God, the art to the senses that allow us to detect these natural phenomena, and the content to the summer's day. Can we use our senses without awareness of God? I think so. But can we use them independent of God? I think not. So then, the content is inaccessible to us without the artist, but our use of the art is more personally derived. In some cases, the art is unconscious (we feel the wind less consciously than we smell the flowers).

This is an imperfectly developed metaphor, but I'm trying to dwell a bit upon your questions, and so stimulate further thought and discussion.

Trevor said...

Sorry I've been away.

a few thoughts:

1. This idea of concealing has deeper implications than we're discussing. I think of Magritte and how most of his paintings suggest that every revelation is concealing something else. This thought has DEEPLY religious implications in application especially to divine revelation. (What do divine revelations conceal? and why do they conceal them?)

On the other hand, concealing is also a form of deception. Now we can argue that concealment is not the same as lying, but I'd hope to save that for another place. My point is that this hiding of messages within a text is the goal of Hollywood films. "Bury the message" is what they do.

This is NOT what I think the Savior did in his teachings. They were always constructed in such a way as to point to the fact that there was a lesson. What you're suggesting here seems to be pulling away from that. True, the parables did not lead to a clear message for some, but the messages were always consistent. I doubt that they are used as examples for storytelling because they neglect the things which are most important in modern storytelling (character, plot, action) and are heavy in didacticism.

2. Of course showiness is completely out of harmony with 'chartable art,' but disclosure of intent (to teach, to entertain, to provoke) seems to be a prerequisite for what I would describe as 'charitable.'

3. To call Patrick an old classmate is an understatement. Though I haven't told him this, I've thought of him many times over this year (which he has spent in Germany while I'm in Poland) as someone whose opinion I would ask about future movie endeavors. Though we only had one class together, I thought of him as a genius.

4.I really apologize for adding to the 'past the end of the thread' Patrick suggested, because I think it may be a good comment to end on.
(by the way, the framing Patrick gave us is something I know I will return to often). I'm especially appreciative because I've always framed the Nouvelle Vague in terms of Sturm und Drang (my only real formal historical training coming from theatre) and the French New Wave is the beginning, as I see it, of high modernism in film. So this framing has made me reconsider that.

5. Whitney, I would argue that the French 'Absurdists' importantly do not call attention to the form, and meta-theatricality (aside from one reference in Rhinoceros) is abstained from. If you're interested in my reading of it you can write me, but I'm assuming that the reasons behind it are less than fascinating to most.

6. Adam, as per your Artist as God metaphor, I think you'd like Shakespeare's The Tempest. Its the best exploration of that metaphor I can think of. I recommend trying to get your hands on the BBC version of the play and watch it on a player that allows you to speed up the playtime slightly. It seems to be the most text based version I know of (Jarman's and Greenaway's have their own agenda and though important adaptations, the BBC version is more straightforward).

Adam K. K. Figueira said...


For clarification's sake, I didn't mean to suggest that the parables tried to hide their meaning completely. It's my fault because I thought of this possible misunderstanding at the time of writing, but decided to hazard it.

What I meant was that the content of the story alone is not sufficient to understanding. The hearer also needed "ears to hear," which implies faith, pure intent, and sincerity of heart - the things Moroni mentions. Without those, the real meaning and value of the parables was inaccessible. Of course, a knowledge of parables as a teaching tool helps, but I don't think many of the people Jesus taught were evaluating his teaching skills. I think they did know, as you said, that the stories had a message, but even the Apostles didn't always understand what it was. It was concealed by their unbelief. Christ's charity dictated that the parables be constructed in such a way as to save the ignorant and unbelieving from themselves. He mercifully did not issue didactic declarations of doctrine. Imagine the condemnation if he had.

Having said that, your point about divine revelation concealing things was in my original post. That's what I meant when I was talking about how the parables held deeper meanings for those who searched. I suppose it wasn't expressed very well. I have a curious way of being verbose and concise at the same time. :)

You have to realize that, since I was trying to explore the subject, I just wrote what I was thinking without classifying it too well. For example, the part about Transformers was one point (about how cg "artists" can "conceal" their work by making it believable), while the part about "preachyness" was different - more geared towards the type of layered meanings that the parables have.

But neither of these points were supposed to be exclusive or unimpeachable.

So I guess the real point is that I need to be clearer when I write and stop beating a dead horse, but I hope this helps you understand my comments better.