The Return of Narrative Art by Patrick Coyne

Narrative, a fundamental driving force behind centuries of art, is again preoccupying artists who've either rejected or never fully embraced Modernism's, idealistic search for progress through abstraction.

But after decades of movements and countermovement—abstract expressionism, lyrical abstraction, geometric abstraction, minimalism, abstract illusionism, post-minimalism—why the return to content and context over work whose artistic value is entirely determined by its form?

Joachim Wtewael : 1566-1638 : Dutch Mannerist Painter
Perseus and Andromeda (1611) : Cephalus and Procris (1595-1600)

Our society is in the midst of a radical reassessment and restructuring—what was once known to be true no longer applies. There exists a need for future mythology and iconography, symbolic narratives explaining how the world and humankind might evolve from their present form. Narratives can teach, enlighten and inspire us to move forward with hope and aspiration.

We are now entering the Attention Age, a time of increasing commoditization of attention as it relates to the proliferation of available information. We are continuously besieged with imagery and iconography from many cultures, appropriated with abandon and stripped of its meaning. This era of media bombardment means our processing of ambiguities and nuance may be more dependent on what we read or hear than what we see.

Ancient Egypt : Mayan Culture : Riverside, Ca.

The desire for storytelling is intrinsic to human existence. Since ancient times artists depicted figures and tales from mythology, legend or history, stories that the viewer probably already knew and could retell in his or her mind while viewing the representation. This worked well until the industrial age scattered and mixed cultures like a societal blender.

Hans Hurtung (1904-1989) : Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) : Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935)

Modernism began as traditional forms of art, architecture, literature, religion and social hierarchy were seen as outdated in the new social, political and economic structure of our emerging industrialized world.

Odilon Redon (1840-1916)
Guardian Spirit of the Waters (1878) : Cyclops (1914) : The Crying Spider (1881) (1840-1916)

While figurative and narrative subjects were utilized by the early modernists, this direction was largely rejected by the 1950s, viewed as inappropriate to the purity of formalism, which focused on compositional elements such as color, line, shape and texture rather than realism, context and content. By the 1970s, critics began to undermine the exclusivist nature of modernism by recognizing and championing a multitude of directions. Relativity was accepted as an unavoidable truth and led to the Postmodern period where the dominance of traditional media gave way to increasing exploration and respect for photography, installation art, video and electronic-based media.

By the 1980s figurative and narrative art had become viable alternatives to abstraction. But this new narrative art is not a return to the past. Today there is an unprecedented range of narrative techniques, the result of advancements in media and materials. More importantly, the sources of content have expanded exponentially.

Walton Ford : (American born 1960) : Falling Bough : 3' x 9' : 2002

Since art provides an opportunity for reflection, the narrative approach seems especially suited to twenty-first-century society's obsession with psychological self-examination and the broadcasting of every waking moment through various forms of social media. While the process of interpretation may be an uncertain endeavor, with narrative art we are free to interpret and absorb the artist's message without intellectual labels or manifestos.

As we search for new directions, narrative art has something to tell us. It speaks to the soul about our ideals and values. It speaks to the past and the future of who we were and who we might want to become. Narrative art helps to create meaning in our lives.

Patrick Coyne is an artist, designer, writer, musician, editor and publisher of Communication Arts, the leading trade journal of visual communications. For more information please visit Communication Arts online. 2004 AIGA Design Leadership Award Recipient.

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