The futility of no narrative

Just under two years ago, I wrote a dissertation for my fine art degree about whether it is possible for art to exist without narrative. I talked about still-life art and the ‘narrative turn’ in the digital age and I concluded that I didn’t think it was possible to have art without narrative despite many 20th-century attempts at creating narrative-free art. 

Two years later, I have been thinking about this again, and I haven’t changed my conclusion.

Everything we do has a narrative. Every day is a narrative. Every hour is a narrative. Take today for example: ‘I woke up at 7.54am and realised that I had to get up soon as I needed to get some ham, cheese and bread with which to feed our guests. I eventually rose at 8.20am after having a much-needed cup of coffee and a much-craved browse of social media. I decided to wear a stripy polo-neck top and black skirt. It was supposed to rain later so I didn’t expect it to be hot. For breakfast I had a roll with cheese and ketchup and a glass of orange juice.’ I could go on but the story of my day (at least the start of it) isn’t terribly exciting. However, my point is that it IS a story. There is a narrative. I’m not sure that I have the audience gripped here, but there is a narrative that someone somewhere can relate to (perhaps someone who also likes cheese and ketchup for breakfast).

Staple breakfast fodder

Later on today, as I was about to watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones (which, let’s face it, is pregnant with narrative), I was thinking about the lives of myself and a group of friends of mine. I was thinking about how myself and these friends have recently had some hard issues to deal with and how we have knitted these issues together without realising it into the fabric of our changing relationships. The last few months of our lives, intertwined as they have been, have been tough. Our lives, bonded together like this, and if told out loud, sound a little like a soup opera. Is that a good thing? Totally, it is a normal thing.

The narrative that the people of the year 2017 are lapping up like thirsty puppies

In soup operas, people eat, drink, love, fight, sleep, tangle, die, marry, divorce, and so on. This is just like our lives.

Everything is a narrative. Every trip to the shops, every conversation, every night out and, as I argued in my dissertation, so also is our response to a piece of art. Paint a picture, post it to Facebook, show it to someone, they will give it a narrative. Trust me. They will. Do it. I know, because they recently did it to me. I liked that they did this. This to me was A Good Thing.

It is hard to argue against the ‘search for a narrative’ argument for a picture that shows a scene, an image or even a shape or line. How about paintings such as this one?

Malevich’s very famous Black Square

Surely, no narrative can be conjured up from this? I disagree: the absence of an image is the narrative. The discussion about what it means, what the response is, is the narrative. The emotional reaction one might get from staring at this painting is itself part of the narrative, or perhaps the start of a narrative.

We find narrative comforting. We cannot live without it. Why? That is what I’m not sure about. Without narrative we feel great anxiety. If we feel that our life has no meaning, no direction, no future, no narrative then we feel anxiety. It is the lack of a narrative that we perceive and it is that lack that makes us feel uneasy and unwell. So if we see no narrative in art, we can’t cope. We search for it desperately, even in a black square, to bring us back to somewhere where we feel grounded again.

We look to art to provide us with narrative when we feel there is narrative lacking in our lives. If we can’t find that narrative,what is left? Empty black space for eternity. Nobody wants that, surely? Even black space has a story to tell.



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