Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The bent toward reduction

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Logically, art begins in a taking away. No painter or dramatist in his right mind ever attempts to reproduce the abundance of life in toto. He may wish to evoke the sense of that abundance, in Brueghel’s way or in Shakespeare’s, but he doesn’t do it by constant addition; he does it by constant subtraction. He limits the frame, sacrifices a dimension, chastens color, looks for absences, refusals, self-imposed limitations that will enable him to suggest more with less. It is the only thing he can do…

If art tends to become livelier as it learns to leave things out, artists are not always astute enough to remember this…Audiences too can grow sluggish for reasons that have little to do with art, more to do with ebbs of energy in the body politic. There are times—long times—when audiences prefer being coddled to being challenged; they are weary at the moment and look for a form of waking sleep…The history of art, then, has not been a record of uninterrupted, ever-increasing selectivity, moving from an initial and quite childish love for superabundant detail to an ultimate, exquisitely chaste refusal of detail. It has, rather, been a seesaw affair, with periods of relative severity giving way to a new taste for opulence, periods of opulence being shattered by fresh calls to severity…The bent of art, when it is attempting to renew itself as art, is toward reduction.

Walter Kerr, The Silent Clowns

Written by nevalalee

April 9, 2017 at 7:30 am

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