On composition, part 14a: The lurking cliché

This is an extension of the topic tackled in a previous Composition post, because I felt it deserved a closer examination. So join me as we dive bravely into the seedy underworld of the cliché again.

The word itself has distinctly negative connotations, doubly so when there’s any connection whatsoever to the Art World (which is a peculiar-looking, off-balance planet that changes its own orbit just to remain unpredictable.) If someone looks at something that you’ve done and uses the word “cliché,” chances are it’s not a compliment. Combined with the artistic desire for originality, this can be enough to push someone into previously unexplored creative realms.

There’s nothing inherently bad about this, and indeed, it can occasionally lead to something really interesting. But not by itself. What should be examined is exactly why someone would want to do this, and what exactly they are trying to accomplish. Yes, there’s a lot of emphasis on doing something unique – you become the only person known for this, and the artistic style becomes synonymous with your name. This is a well-established method of garnering fame, income, and a fanbase, but it’s one of those things that gets misinterpreted very often – it’s not the only set of factors ever involved, and nobody seems to have any figures for how often it doesn’t work. Art isn’t just about doing something different, especially not when you’re hoping to accomplish any recognition for it; there also has to be the patron, the person (usually a lot of them) who gets a connection with what you do, who finds the shared spirit, who understands the mood you’re trying to evoke, who gets it. This is almost the exact opposite of individuality, even when it’s just a select few, an elite following. For someone to like your work, there needs to be a certain level of social interaction – not in the form of shaking hands or accepting a Friend request, but in the form of someone getting a positive response from your creation.

There are a lot of people who never seem to recognize this, who pursue individuality to the point of breaking down whatever social interaction is to be had – they create confusing, scattered, unrecognizable works that avoid a resemblance to anything else, including whatever kindred spirit they might have evoked from the viewer. True enough, they have avoided clichés, and derivative works, and thus established their uniqueness – but is that all that was desired? Does this mean anything, to anyone? Or is it just neurotic overreaction?

As indicated in the earlier post, clichés exist largely because something has become inherently recognizable – the empty playground swing that represents lost childhood, the monochrome photo of a smoking young woman in a café. They’re expressive – so readily, in fact, that they can be overused, which is how they became clichés in the first place. And it’s certainly true that if the viewer sees anything as a cliché, they’re not likely to possess a positive reaction to it. But we also can’t abandon every last vestige of recognizable elements in the obsessive desire to leave this epithet behind. What people like about art is the positive elements they find, not the mere lack of negative elements, or even the originality of the approach. Randomness, like paint from an overturned bucket or the leaf litter of the forest floor, is unique; obviously, something more is needed.

Quite often, what works is the balance point: the method or style that’s rare, combined with an ability to strike that common chord with the viewer. Don’t look at me, I make no claims of having accomplished this at all, and am not terribly motivated to either. A lot depends on what the goal really is. If anyone does anything at all that they show, to even just one other person, they’re looking for approval, and there’s nothing wrong with this. But approval can come from a lot of different things, and sometimes, it’s doing something very common. Current styles in just about anything relate directly to conformity, the desire for people to connect with as many others as possible, and this means you can occasionally make a lot of money by being able to provide this. Sometimes people want to see something dependable, even predictable – tally up the number of films you’ve seen with happy endings against those without. The things that spark our emotions are mostly very simple, as any advertiser will tell you – and hearing that will put countless artists on the defensive: “Don’t even try associating me with commercial advertising!” Such a perspective can be damaging if taken too far, because the human traits that the advertiser manipulates are the same traits to give an appreciation of anything artistic or creative, they just need to be summoned in a different way. Think of it from the standpoint of a chef; you can start with the ubiquitous base ingredients such as chicken or potatoes, but it’s what you do with them that matters. And to continue this analogy, fast food places do not exist because people solely crave originality.

It is important to recognize that ego likely plays a role in all this:I want to start my own style.” Yet, this is no different from opinion, and everyone has one. What we want isn’t our own style, but for others to look at it and say, “Wow, what a cool style!” Or perhaps, even just, “Sure, I’ll buy that.” Ego is always stroked by others. While we might like to think others will come to us, it’s probably more useful to think in terms of bringing to others what they want.

Some of my most appreciated images aren’t unique, and some of them are downright trite – it’s not the originality at all, but just the emotions that are invoked, perhaps, “I want to be there,” or, “Those colors are gorgeous.” Other images are unique, in limited ways, by showing atypical angles or details, surprising people while still showing them mundane (sometimes even creepy) subjects. I’ll never claim to be accomplished at it, and I don’t do the artsy thing often, but I still get compliments on my work. Many of those would never have been forthcoming if I worried way too much about being truly original.
contrast and selective focus