Friday, February 27, 2009

Artist Salon Re-Hash Part 1: Defining the Epic

So my program on wed @ Chez Bushwick went really well in my opinion - supper under attended, but interesting and fun nonetheless - and we got into some really great conversations by the end. I'm really grateful that Anna invited me to moderate it - it helped me solidify and test out everything that's been rambling around in my head for the past year or so

Since a lot of you couldn't come, i wanted to post some sort of doug-fox-inspired guide to/artifact of the presentation and discussion. Stick with me, it's going to be a long one.
Shocker, i know.
I'm going to break it down into a few separate posts to make it a little more manageable. I'll serialize it, if you will (for those of you who were there and get how clever i'm being.)

Here's a basic outline of what we talked about, broken down with the media samples to go along.

How does one define "epic work"?

While some might stick to the literary definition, others jump to the vernacular understanding - long, dense, hard to get through. Though the definitions are clearly different and quite specific, I actually don't think it aids us a great deal to split hairs between them. What ends up happening (and you'll see this as we go) is that there's so much overlap that what matters is knowing the definitions, not necessarily following them. So let's define!

The literary definition of "epic" (according to wiki - full article here) is as follows:
a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation.
Additionally, traditional epic literature contains these nine characteristics:
  1. opens in media res
  2. The setting is vast, covering many nations, the world, or the universe.
  3. begins with an invocation to a muse
  4. starts with a statement of the theme
  5. the use of epithets.
  6. includes long lists.
  7. features long and formal speeches.
  8. shows divine intervention on human affairs.
  9. "Star" heroes that embody the values of the civilization.
Now, these are clearly definitions of a traditional epic, and as Ben pointed out near the end, most of what I'm looking at are postmodern epics. However, keeping these nine characteristics in mind can help us examine how pieces and works are epic and how they relate to each other, even if their epic-ness is derived from being in contrast or negation of one of the categories.

We can also look at the genre of film to get a slightly different definition. Epic Films are
"a genre of film which places emphasis on human drama on a grand scale. They are more ambitious in scope than other genres which helps to differentiate them from similar genres such as the period piece or adventure film. This often entails high production values, a sweeping musical score by an acclaimed film composer, and an ensemble cast of bankable stars, placing them among the most expensive of films to produce" (wiki).

And then there's this vernacular understanding. "Epic" as long, big, never ending, dense, a journey, a quest, a search. Also, "Epic" as "awesome", historically reinforced, precidented. It leads to a confusion of terms and an esssentializing of what the epic really is. Take this for example, from wiki:

"Many refer to any film that is "long" (over two hours) as an epic, and as such a definition of an epic film (especially among today's films) is a matter of dispute among many. As Roger Ebert put it, in his "Great Movies" article on Lawrence of Arabia:[3]

"The word epic in recent years has become synonymous with big budget B picture. What you realize watching Lawrence of Arabia is that the word epic refers not to the cost or the elaborate production, but to the size of the ideas and vision. Werner Herzog's 'Aguirre: The Wrath of God' didn't cost as much as the catering in 'Pearl Harbor,' but it is an epic, and 'Pearl Harbor' is not.""

However, i think this essentializing and cross-meaning can be a great thing, becuase it means that more and more things are becoming entwined in the eipc conversation.

Now, when i was trying to map out how to speak about all these different artists and their individual yet collective epic natures, i grappled a bit with what direction to come at it all from. In terms of their definitions? In terms of why they are made? In terms of how they are recieved?

In the end, i decided to look at these works through the skeleton of five categories, which to me represent the main attractions (both as a audience and a creator) to epic work. I'll lay them out here, and then go into detail using the artists at hand as an example in a post to follow.

1. Humans are attracted to epic work becuase we are "World Builders".
We create order, structure, and relationships everywhere we go - most notably in our societies and lives. It then is only logical that we are driven to re-create these world-structures in our art, and that we find it satisfying to watch or experience these world in the art of others. Main examples: Myst and Ulysses.

2. On the completly other end of the line (so far that if you make the line a circle the two end up being right next to each other) is the idea that life isn't clean or organized - it's messy, crude, confusing, and infinately complex. Any art that mirrors this complexity may end up being epic in scope. The epic is a mirror to the complexity and largeness of life. Main examples: Ulysses and Sara Rudner.

3. Creating epic work is a process that, for the creator, involves not being able to contain or process the whole work at once. This nessitates the artist's creation of new strategies, processes, and medias, not to mention whole ways of thinking. In this way, epic work is an evolutionary tool for artists, pushing them to evolve their art and art making in ways that are distinctly different from other processes. Main examples: Sara Rudner and my work.

4. Epic work is inherently lends itself to a plethora of marketing posibilities. In our current economy, specifically in the arts, there's a constant focus on reduction and simplification. However, if we look to mainstream culture, we see that things like epic movies (lord of the rings, the matrix) and epic books (Harry Potter) are a commanding presence. Additionally, serialization (Deadwood, the wire, etc.) provides veiwers with a new watching format for the epic. Epic work provides artists with a way to go more in depth and yeild a greater return, and at the same time can be more engrossing and exciting for veiwers and audiences to watch. Main examples: my work and the Matrix.

5. One of the main reasons that epic work is so engrosing to us as audience members is its subtextual (or subvisceral, subaural, etc) abilities and nature. The fact that we can not only take the work at surface level, but are also encouraged to go inside of it to explore on our own, and as a collective group of schollars and thinkers makes the work in a constant state of dialouge with other works, people, and ideas around it. Due to this interconnectivity, we not only experience the work, but all the other works that it is communicating with. Main examples: Girl Talk, Sara Rudner, Ulysses, my work, and the Matrix.

So those are the big five!
In the next few days i'll be posting a more detailed post for each categories, with media examples so you can get a better sense of what i'm talking about. I also want to reserve a post at the end to bring up some of the (amazingly exciting) ideas that came up in our discussion as well. As always, questions and comments are welcome at any stage of the process.

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