Saturday, February 3, 2018

Motif, Style, Dross

In his remarks on Alec Soth, which you can read here, Darren Campion treats us to this delicious sentence: Narrative, then, is the sum of this relationship between motif and theme which, although I cannot make out what it even might mean, is delightfully weighty and evocative, isn't it? Insofar as it means anything, I think it's wrong, but that's quite a different essay.

The point is that it got me to thinking about motif and concept, and what the relationship between them is.

And that got me thinking about what motif is, and how it differs from nearby things.

In music, the motifs are pretty clear, generally. At least, the composer sees them thus. It's this bit, see? And I repeat it here, and here, there is is again upside down, and then again, and so on, right? The rest of the stuff is obviously just filler! The unsophisticated clod listening (me) might not pick the motifs out very reliably, but you can't have everything. I have this idea that motif stands out audibly in different ways, maybe easier to separate ways, but that doesn't actually matter much.

But what do I mean my motif here anyways? As usual, I'm talking about groups of pictures. A book, a portfolio, a slideshow. What I mean by motif here is the repeated idea that "stands out" in some way. The red Mustang that pops up every now and then, the way the photos of children are heavily vignetted, and so on.

In a collection of pictures, there are a bunch of things which we can lump together as visible features. The pictures are black-and-white (or color). This one is big, that one is small. This one is dark, that one is light. They're all sepia toned. And so on, on and on. These visual things cut across both the pictures and the design that contains the pictures.

Motifs are the repeated visual things which stand out.

There is some sort of a dual, or oppositional, nature here. When I make a bunch of pictures, I might stick that red Mustang into some of the pictures as a motif. You, looking at the pictures, might not particularly notice the Mustang. I assume that you're attentive enough to note it, but it might simply not stand out to you, it might just be a car in the background. Or even a car that turns up a lot, and you might mutter "that Molitor guy must have shot all this crap the same afternoon, the lazy ass."

I'm going to lump everything else visible into two other rough categories:

There's style, which is all the visible stuff which, while it might not stand out, serves to bind the collection of pictures together, to create a clear look to the whole collection (or to these subset, or that one). If the black-and-whiteness isn't standing out, or wasn't intended to stand out, it at least holds the 7 black-and-white photos on pages 20 through 25 together. I might have intended it as a motif, you might read it as style. Or vice versa. Or maybe we agree.

And then there's dross, which is everything else. It's just the miscellaneous visible stuff that doesn't function in any particular way. There's a lot of this.

As analogy with a single picture: you photograph your subject (probably a fire hydrant), and that's the important bit, and then there's the clever relationship with the shop window and the pedestrian, and then there's a bunch of junk you have to put up with. The road, the tree over there, and so on. That's the dross. Ideally it doesn't do much, or any damage to the whole, but it's not doing much of anything.

Again, what I, the artist, might classify as style, or dross, might well read to you quite differently. You might see the trees and the lug nuts that I completely ignored, and perceive therein a motif. My precious red Mustang might read to you as dross, perhaps of the worst sort, getting the way of the trees as it so often does.

Why on earth would one even care about this sort of pointless parsing of bits and pieces, anyways? Well, for starters, I am the pointless parsing of trivialities guy. But I do have a larger agenda here as well.

I am concerned with the ways in which we make that tremendous leap from a pile of visible features, to a concept, to the big idea that's supposedly buried in a body of work. At the moment, I think that the leap is based on motif. Things that stand out are the obvious starting points for this idea, and a repeated thing that stands out makes it, surely, inescapable.

The red Mustang stands out, and it's therefore notable, important. The artist must have meant something by it. Wait, there it is again, we notice. And again. What is going on here, we ask, and perhaps we begin to "get it" in some fashion.

Things which lump into style, I feel, provide the basis upon which ideas are built. There's a mood set, perhaps, a flavor, a feeling. A strong style builds a foundation, and motif propels the idea upwards and out, perhaps.

If it's not actually true, I am finding it any any rate to be a convincing bunch of BS!

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