Oswald Spengler believed that different arts coexisting in the same era and culture have more in common with each other than do works in the same media from different eras and cultures. Which is to say, the Basilica at Ottobeuren in Bavaria, the paintings of Jean-Baptiste van Loo, and the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau have more in common with each other than van Loo has in common with "Our Mother of Perpetual Help" or Frank Stella, or than Rameau has in common with plainchant or "Dark Side of the Moon."
In much the same way, I suspect that most people who live immersed or intertwined with art have tastes that break the bounds of media. Your essential tastes might have broad similarities across movies, music, books, and pictures. If you like fantasy, you will probably find delight in Jules Verne as well as the Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies and phantasmagorical Photoshopped creations such as the ones Roger Overall featured here on Saturday (or ones like them, if you don't care for those). If political significance is what resonates for you, you probably appreciate "All The President's Men," Kodelka's Invasion 68: Prague (just out of print, by the way), and Animal Farm.
This overarching taste might be centered on anything—a subject matter, a style, a philosophy, an emotion. Even psychology—I have a friend who seems to respond to depressive cues, a certain forlorn sadness, lonliness. There's no telling what it might be for you until you uncover it for yourself.
What I like is naturalism, which the AHED defines bluntly as "factual or realistic representation." What makes something "naturalistic" in my view is the directness of its connection to life or truth or reality—not simply exact depiction, and certainly not "perfectness." I like naturalism across media and genres. I find it emotional; the slap of truth moves me. Films like "Jurassic Park," say, or "Alien," leave me almost completely cold—they're just pap to me; they don't come close to touching me. But I found "Winter's Bone" deeply involving, thrilling, suspenseful, almost excruciating to watch, its "Gothic moment" much more powerful than the wood-chipper scene in "Fargo," which by comparison read to me as a successful filmic meme its makers knew would set audiences chattering. Why? because I believed "Winter's Bone"—its naturalistic mode, authentic settings, and adroit acting performances allow me to suspend disbelief. Not for nothing is my favorite western "McCabe and Mrs. Miller"—with its chaotic western town half-built of fresh-milled wood, and its bad guy not some rampaging psychotic but a calculating businessman hired to do a job. Of course it's still a work of art—real life doesn't come with a score by Leonard Cohen, even if sometimes it should—but Robert Altman's guiding mode is naturalism.
I was helped in my discovery of this by a particular column I wish I had in my files but don't. It was written by Owen Edwards, the regular columnist for American Photographer magazine [sic—it became American Photo later] whose work I admired when I first started writing about photography. I seem to recall that it was one of his last columns—when I contacted him six or seven years ago he was no longer writing about photography and didn't seem to have archived his work digitally. At any rate, in that particular column he tried to boil everything down to first principles and find the common thread in all the photography he loved, and for him, he said, it all came down to glamour. That lit the lightbulb for me, because that was so obviously not it for me. I don't really care much about glamour at all. It started me thinking—if that wasn't it for me, what was?
Naturalistism doesn't just describe the style of photography I've decided to like; rather, I suspect that the underlying appeal that makes naturalism so rich for me is the reason I like photography in the first place.
Of course I'm open to successful art in other modes. But naturalism is what I'm a sucker for. Even to the point that fake naturalism is something I'm a bit more susceptible to than other forms of mannerism: plausibility in the fictive arts helps me get into them more, and I even sometimes rather like the telltales of directness and immediateness even when they're deliberate. What can I say? Fondness exposes weaknesses.
Above: Michelangelo Merisis da Caravaggio, Deposition from the Cross, c. 1602–04; below: Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic, 1875. The gradual emergence of naturalism in painting over the centuries is one of the great threads in art history.
Realism overlaps with naturalism, which might be why I find myself reading lots of nonfiction. I enjoy things like Joe Simpson's book Touching the Void and Ian Frazier's On the Rez, and I appreciate memoir (and I hope I'll get to write one myself one day, if I'm to be blessed with a gentle decline with an intact memory)—my favorite book by Hemingway, tellingly, is A Moveable Feast. But a book of fiction I can see reality behind works better for me than one I can't. And here's a curious fact: the more contrived I find a work of art to be, the more difficult it is for me to remember it. I even like naturalism in music recordings: I often respond to records that document a real event. I'd rather listen to a live recording made in a jazz club than a work of art "built" of dozens of tracks, real instruments played in real time rather than synthesized sounds that never existed as vibrations in the air. I like Wes Montgomery's Full House or Thelonious Monk's Thelonious in Action and Misterioso* more than Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells or Coil's Love's Secret Domain. If it were up to me, classical piano records would have the flubs left in. I'd rather hear what the pianist actually played than some Apollonian ideal of the score created by dozens of corrections and partial takes spliced in after the fact.
I'll look at or listen to most kinds of art, but by this time I know what moves me and what's unlikely to. I neither read a lot of genre fiction nor go to a lot of fantasy movies (the recent pop hit with the blue creatures didn't tempt me even a little, but I liked "The King's Speech"). I'll look at all kinds of photography, too, but I don't get anything out of fantasies for fantasy's sake or Photoshop magic or, say, the photographer that Tom K. referred to in the Comments to Saturday's post. His work is very well done and I'm sure it's very effective at what it's intended to do—I just happen to get no satisfaction of any sort from it. I'd rather look at old snapshots, like the ones in the John Foster Collection which we talked about here some time back. That's not a judgment; I'm perfectly happy with a live-and-let-enjoy attitude for others. I'm not the arbiter for everybody. I am for me.
When I get around to it I'll post some examples of naturalism in photography, and maybe some counterexamples. But I thought this post might set you to pondering over what your own guiding mode might be—not only in photography, but across all the arts.
*I wrote a review of that pair here, tagged on to Bob Burnett's review of Monk's Music.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Michael: "I wonder if might not also be called 'documentary style', which was the term used by Walker Evans. ('Deadpan' is another, maybe not so useful, term, but it might apply, I think, to the 'New Topographics' exhibition.)
"You lead me to think of Robert Adams here, who managed to get into his photos the light, the mountains/plains, and the houses. Since I lived in his photos, so to speak, I can say: it was just like that. These photos are natural. So then (following your line) the natural, the everyday, the just-like-it-is, has a powerful draw. And that may be because that sense of naturalism (why not 'realism'?) is very hard to achieve. It's not only that there are so many ways to go wrong and miss 'what's natural'; it's also that any given 'natural' that we might experience is wreathed with so many imaginings, hopes, regrets, misreadings, and romanticizings that we seldom actually experience it at all...until someone points it out to us. I give you Robert Adams!"
Featured Comment by Miguel: "You must study Spanish art. Most of their clasical masters in painting and writing were naturalistic. Velazquez, Zurbarán, El Greco, Goya, Antonio López (painters), Arcipreste de Talavera, Fernando de Rojas, Cervantes, Lazarillo de Tormes, Delibes (writers). The danger in Spanish art is the tendence to manierism or barroquism (Murillo, Dalí, Quevedo, García Márquez)."
Featured Comment by James: "After some thought, the biggest guiding mode I can identify for myself is atavism, primitivism, or plainness. I don't like things polished. I'm attracted to low-fi recordings, black-and-white photographs made with minimal equipment, and the Dogme 95 films. As a medium, I like drawing, usually more than painting or photography. If the heart of an artwork is strong, I feel it gains nothing from polished edges. I also like the idiosyncrasies of the artist's hand to be clearly apparent in the finished work, and definitely do not like art that tends towards the generic or the ideal."
Featured Comment by Joe: "Oh my goodness 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller' is a good movie. One of my all-time favorites. And there are some interesting stories behind its making. One is that the town in which it was set was actually being built as the film was shot—many of the carpenters and workers in the film were actually set builder. They built the set on camera as the film was being shot. (Which of course forced Altman to shoot much of the film in chronological order, which is unusual.) Another tidbit—Altman was so sure that the studio would disapprove of the washed-out look he wanted that he had his cinematographer pre-fog the film and shoot it in camera that way rather than in post-production. Finally, the snow that so perfectly ends the film was a lucky accident. It started to snow when only the final scenes were left to shoot, so almost all the snow you see on film is real. Sometimes happy accidents make for perfection."
Featured Comment by Player: "My own guiding mode, in a word, 'honesty.'"
Featured Comment by Paul Byrnes: "Great post, and superb comments. Defining one's response to naturalism, or any other -ism, is what we all do every day a thousand times. You look at an image, decide if you believe it or not, react with an emotion, move on or tarry. I too am promiscuous about this, loving science fiction and fantasy in the right hands (Kubrick, anyone?), and the naturalism of Walker Evans at the same time, but both are productions of reality. Just shooting in black and white is in some ways a flight from realism, at least. I think of it as a continuum, and where I engage on that line depends on the artist. Like Art Pepper says, if it moves me, it's love.
"In movies, I see a definite flight from naturalism in most of the films I see and write about, associated with computers—same as in Photoshopped photography. 'The real' is no longer valued as it once was. In fact, the 'unreal' of 300 excites a younger generation in a way that makes me wince, not to mention worry about the future of the human race. CG and gaming are changing story in a profound way, in the sense that a story used to have an arc, and now it's just the scene, which has to have a kinetic jolt. The overall story can be nonsensical if the jolts are frequent enough. I'll stop before I get too excited, but yes, there is something beautiful in the way 'Winter's Bone' returns to real lives and high drama. This is not yet lost; you can find it in other movies, but it is getting harder. There are signs of a backlash—I hear theatres in Thailand now advertise 'No CGI' as an attraction."
Mike replies: Just a selfish aside, but if you could recommend some other movies that "return to real lives and high drama," I'd be grateful....