Art Imitates and Instructs

Yin Yang Tree

In a two-sided manner, artists imitate life while presenting a moral or aesthetic message. (Image: public domain.)

The Two Aspects of Art

Art has a dual role: to imitate life and to instruct. Nowhere in art is this duality more important than in the art of writing. Words can tackle complex issues in ways that painting, sculpting, or dance, simply cannot. This is not to suggest other art forms have nothing to say. It is just that writing goes beyond the brilliant snapshots of painting and sculpture, however perceptive, suggestive, and evocative they may be, and can pack more into a couple of hours exposure than any ballet or modern dance performance. Words transcend emotion, beauty, and grace to tackle the difficult worlds of abstract ideas and morality.

Does this seem beyond the concern of genre writers who may be working in, for example, the science fiction or fantasy categories? It simply is not so. As I have pointed out in my earlier post, “Indie Writers Are Artists Too,” even the most genre-oriented writers need to understand that everything they write has a message, even if they are unaware of what that message is. Good writers – good artists – take charge of their message to make sure their work says something they believe in.

For writers, the duality within their art lies in the discrepancy between their sense of how things are and how they ought to be. That is, worldview and morality may collide. What writers see around them, their understanding of how the world works, may not coincide with how they think, believe, or feel the world should work. How are writers to deal with this situation?

Dealing with the Duality

Unaware writers simply ignore the discrepancy, do their work, and allow their story to send whatever message it happens to acquire during the writing process. Interestingly, these same writers will often become upset when reviewers or readers complain that they do not like what the writer’s story is suggesting. Those writers’ worldviews evidently do not include the insight that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.”

Writers that are more conscious know they have to take a position on what they are writing. First, however, they have to make a choice about which side of the duality any particular work will tackle. They can choose to depict the world as it actually is; or at least, the way they themselves perceive it to be. This is the “gritty reality” approach where life is rough and characters have many shortcomings. Alternatively, they can choose to portray a better world; or at least a world they themselves might prefer. This is the more common idealized approach where stories and the people in them are better than real life. Generally, readers (who are looking for entertainment, after all) tend to prefer the latter option. As I pointed out in the earlier post, whatever choice writers make, they must take a stand on how to judge the characters they create to dramatize their story.

With morality, the “instruct” part of art’s two-sidedness, it always comes down to characters. Will characters who behave badly get their just deserts? Will they agonize over their own behaviour, recognizing that it is wrong, and thereby reveal at least a conscience? Are the “good” characters sincere; or are they hypocritical phoneys? Do rewards go to the pure of heart or is behaving well a reward in itself? The possibilities are legion. As the writer of the tale, you must decide.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

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