My friend Tim came over to my place for dinner. He is a filmmaker, in love with the art of storytelling. I asked him why there are no films or novels about inanimate objects. We both agreed that it would be rather boring, but the question of why fascinates me. When we say “story”, especially in the context of film and literature, it is implied that we are referring to human story. Could a novel be written about a tree? It wouldn’t be hard if we were to anthropomorphized the tree, let it talk like a human, and interact with other trees; but then it would just be another human story.
The only feature-length film about an inanimate object that I can think of is Andy Warhol’s “Empire”. The film is actually far longer than a typical “feature-length” movie, at 8 hours and 5 minutes. He aimed the camera at the top of the Empire State Building and kept it rolling. Nothing happens in the film. The fact that it’s boring is the interesting part. Why do we find it boring? A film can be made, or a novel can be written, which is essentially a portrait of someone, and it can be quite interesting. But it appears that we can’t do the same if the subject is an inanimate object. It seems so limiting that a “story” must be about a human being. Imagine if a story can be written about any objects; it would open the art of storytelling to vast new possibilities.
This reminds me of Twelve-tone music that Arnold Schoenberg invented. I think he was feeling imprisoned by the traditional/functional harmony consisting of just 7 notes in an octave. He wanted to free music from that limitation. But most of us are naturally drawn to the consonance of functional harmony, just like we are naturally drawn to human stories or to the Golden ratio.
It appears that when we entirely ignore the gravitational force and skip too far ahead of our own times, people can no longer relate to it. It feels utterly foreign and boring, like Warhol’s “Empire”. For our art to be culturally relevant, it can’t be too far away from the accepted norms of beauty. My friend Tim said, “only 30 degrees.” Yet, Warhol’s “Empire” was culturally relevant because it reminded us of this reality.
Ideologically it is frustrating because we are constantly pulled towards this force that feels so deterministic, absolute, and even totalitarian. Although the household definition of “artist” is someone who has mastered these predetermined formulas, historically, true artists were those who dared to pull away from the gravitational force, like trying to escape a vortex of beauty.
This is very clear in the history of Western music which is a constant and consistent movement away from consonance and towards dissonance. Every generation of composers added just a digestible amount of dissonance to their predecessors’ music. Moving from seven to twelve tones wasn’t enough; now the idea of “tone” is considered too limiting. Some composers moved into the world of microtonal music while others went into the world of noise. If there is anything resembling truth or essence to be found in music, the composers in history have been trying hard to move away from it.
I too have a love-and-hate relationship with beauty. Every time I feel the urge to embrace beauty, I feel at the same time a compulsion to reject it. With photography, for instance, I like taking intensionally ugly photos, or intensionally crop them in uninteresting ways. It is surprisingly difficult to do. I sometimes wonder why art had anything to do with beauty in the first place. If we look at art as a process of self-discovery, or to learn what it means to be human, ugliness should play just as important a role as beauty. To know ugliness is ultimately the same as to know beauty. Art can be ugly or boring and still teach us something about who we are. I think this is what Warhol was trying to do with “Empire”.
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