The Oklahoma City Museum of Art is currently exhibiting 19th century narrative art from England and France. I spent my Saturday afternoon wandering from one painting to another, entertaining myself by trying to figure out the story being presented in the artwork. Some of the pieces drew upon standard classical and Biblical themes, while others chose their subjects from everyday life as well as from the lives of the famous. At a time when Impressionism and Post-Impressionism were stealing the spotlight in the visual arts, these artists recognized to the importance of, and aesthetic value in, lives of individuals.

Often times the paintings had a clear message or a moral to their story that was a strong indication of the painter’s particular views. Nevertheless, the interesting feature of this art is that it did not divorce itself from an attempt to portray things as they appear in order to present an ideal or theory about the world. The theory was right there among the people, be it a French peasant gathering the hay or a group of Greek youths gathered around Homer’s poetry.

The combination of the message, the opinion, or philosophy of the artist with the story illustrated on his canvas, struck me as deeply profound. If the world of ideas is only accessible through abstraction and meditation then it is inaccessible to the majority of mankind. However, if the important things of life are best related in a story, through the narration of the artist, then perhaps we have a chance of understanding something after all.

We are masses of individuals, each of which has a unique story. Narrative art recognizes that there are a multitude of stories to be told, and that they are worth telling. By focusing attention on this or that person, action, or moment in time, the individual is duly honored; it isn’t just the theory or idea that has value, but the individual person is seen as important as well. The story must use particular instances of particular people in order to come alive. Interestingly, however, the narration of the story of the individual provides a check to the tendency to glorify the individual. Through an event as normal as a reaper taking a break from his labor to drink a glass of water, the artist is able to paint a vivid scene that immediately draws the viewer into the story and then provides a medium through which the viewer can reflect upon more universal themes that are instanced in the particular story presented. The individual story becomes part of a larger message or moral that finds its root in the warp and woof of life, and then grows to become a tree large enough for all the birds of the field to nest in.

Abstraction can be a useful tool that enables one to separate out the kernel from the husk and disect the smallest details; however, the narrative artist uses the whole grain to point to the value and importance of the kernel inside, thus keeping intact those things that were, perhaps, never meant to be separated.

Posted by Tex

  • I enjoyed your thoughts on the subject, Tex, and I really think you’ve captured the popular appeal of narrative art. It is full of beauty and truth on a variety of levels, and not merely because it allows us to observe something the artist found interesting, but because such paintings really do tell a story with profound lessons that speak across the generations to me and my circumstances today.

    The power of stories to communicate truth is what makes Jesus’ parables so remarkable and so engaging. We are told stories from the earliest days of our lives, and they have a natural appeal because we all rightly see ourselves as participants in a grand story about ourselves, our family, our community, and the place we occupy in the history of God’s work in the world.

    You spent your afternoon well. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  • That’s also what Bono said this week in his Rolling Stone cover interview:
    RS: What is your religious belief today? What is your concept of God?

    Bono: If I could put it simply, I would say that I believe there’s a force of love and logic in the world, a force of love and logic behind the universe. And I believe in the poetic genius of a creator who would choose to express such unfathomable power as a child born in “straw poverty”; i.e., the story of Christ makes sense to me.

    RS: How does it make sense?

    Bono: As an artist, I see the poetry of it. It’s so brilliant. That this scale of creation, and the unfathomable universe, should describe itself in such vulnerability, as a child. That is mind-blowing to me. I guess that would make me a Christian. Although I don’t use the label, because it is so very hard to live up to. I feel like I’m the worst example of it, so I just kinda keep my mouth shut.Though he’s probably not as good of a poet as he thinks he is, I love Bono because he’s always paraphrasing Dante and CS Lewis. The wouldn’t say he’s stealing the “story of the incarnation” stuff from Lewis except that in the book Bono In Conversation he drops the Liar, Lunatic, or Lord argument on his interviewer.

    The interesting thing is that the appeal of the incarnation story for Lewis was the Dying God myth, while Bono emphasizes the class/poverty aspect of the condescension. There’s enough in it to dig on your own pet fascination. I guess for Mel Gibson it’s the macho violence!

    It’s the Rorschach Ink(arnation) Blot Test!

  • Sorry for the formatting of the last post. It wouldn’t accept blockquote tags so I changed them to italics but left my comment in the same paragraph as Bono’s quote.

    By the way, Bono also had some interesting things to say about American Evangelicals (and the Democratic party):

    RS: What do you think of the evangelical movement that we see in the United States now?

    Bono: I’m wary of faith outside of actions. I’m wary of religiosity that ignores the wider world. In 2001, only seven percent of evangelicals polled felt it incumbent upon themselves to respond to the AIDS emergency. This appalled me. I asked for meetings with as many church leaders as would have them with me. I used my background in the Scriptures to speak to them about the so-called leprosy of our age and how I felt Christ would respond to it. And they had better get to it quickly, or they would be very much on the other side of what God was doing in the world.

    Amazingly, they did respond. I couldn’t believe it. It almost ruined it for me — ’cause I love giving out about the church and Christianity. But they actually came through: Jesse Helms, you know, publicly repents for the way he thinks about AIDS.

    I’ve started to see this community as a real resource in America. I have described them as “narrow-minded idealists.” If you can widen the aperture of that idealism, these people want to change the world. They want their lives to have meaning. And it’s one of the things that the Democratic Party has missed out on. You know, so much of the moral high ground in the past was Democratic: FDR, RFK, Cesar Chavez. Now I suppose it’s Hillary’s passion for cheaper medical care. And Teddy Kennedy, of course.

    Ouch!