Sunday, 13 September 2009

Back story

Now, I’ve been brewing a post on this for quite some while as it’s a popular tendency with artists to cook up a “back story” to flavour or spice up their dish.

I said, previously.. “If someone plants an ugly plant (there are ugly plants in SL) in front of an ugly wall and tells me that the cement for the mortar in the walls was mixed with the tears of angels, and the plant was taken from the garden of the Queen of Sheba, and the whole installation was to highlight the plight of prisoners being tortured by fascist regimes..... I trust I will say “thats hell of an ugly thing you have there”.

Now I should maybe have been a little clearer concerning my objections as I feel them to be valid, so, in a rather unusual move I have decided to be logical, hoping this unusual turn of mind doesn’t worry you, dear reader.

A back story, a narrative about the fictional history of a piece, instructs the viewer how they should look at the piece; it gives a particular perspective. It is the artist trying to control the viewer's experience.

My objections are as follows:

1) The proscriptive nature of a back story rules out any ambiguity and restricts the viewers possibility of finding meanings which were unseen by the artist.This tends to rule out the possibility of the viewer to relate the piece to subject matter which may be uppermost in their minds at the time of viewing. It restricts the layers of meaning of a piece to one, the artist’s, and the Zen like nature of some work to portray contradictions or multi-dimensional concepts is thereby limited.

2) As the manner in which a story is told is a product of the tellers culture, some cultures will find this an alienating factor. Visual art is more universal than story telling (which is culturally flavoured). As an example, just think of a film about love made in USA, Japan, Europe....the theme could be the same, the telling...very different

3) The story and the piece are only really connected in any permanent way in a film or a comic. 2D images of paintings, or photos of sculptures, or photos of “immersive” environments are separated from the back story, and must either stand on their own two feet or die.

It is obvious to me that a work of art is generally a product of the artists conscious mind and their unconscious. An artist may not be fully aware of what they have created, and a viewer can, sometimes, show the artist aspects of the work they had not consciously realised. However, in nailing the back story to the piece, any development of appreciation of the piece over time is ruled out.

The greatest pieces of work I saw as a child gave me an experience independent of the artist, their background, their stories; they spoke to me in spite of the fact I knew nothing of these things.

In my opinion good visual art speaks through form and colour in a universal language similar to music. Lyrics can be a red herring as is the “back story”.

I hate being told what I am looking at...



  1. i have to agree with you soror, a backstory is a manipulation (although for some things a background is useful but should not be necessary in order to experience the art in a meaningful way)

  2. great, I am pleased to know I'm not alone...:)))

  3. Well said. The other wonderful thing is that you can come back to a work at various times and get something totally different. This especially so with art experienced as a child, an adult, and againas an old person.
    And the most wonderful thing for an artist - I once read a treatise on one of my real life works which had NOTHING to do with anything I had meant or thought about in its making - but now I enjoy that peice again through another's eyes - and who is to say who is right.perhaps I didn't know what I meant.

  4. yes, thank you, that's exactly one of my points...:))