Saturday, November 22, 2014

Personal thoughts on the four campfires of art

Scott McCloud is a cartoonist, and the leading theorist of comic arts.  In his book Making Comics, McCloud proposed the idea of the "four campfires of art", also known as "tribes of art" or "passions of art".  It's a way of dividing art or artists into four types.  But perhaps it's better understood as dividing art into four aspirations, since any particular artist or work of art can draw from multiple campfires.

For a description of the four campfires, here's a good blog post, or you can see what McCloud himself says in his TED talk or in this interview.

Image taken from McCloud's TED talk.

In addition to those links, I offer a very brief description:
  • Classicists focus on beauty, and mastery of the artform.
  • Animists focus on content, trying to present their story or ideas in the clearest way possible.
  • Formalists focus on form, exploring the contours of the medium.
  • Iconoclasts focus on truth, especially by targeting artistic conventions which gloss over truth.
Though McCloud is coming from the perspective of comics, they also may apply to other art forms, such as fine arts, literature, movies, music, and video games.

I find these four campfires to be personally validating, so much to the extent that I cannot offer any general commentary on them, and only offer my personal feelings.

I take one look at the four campfires, and it's blatantly obvious which one I fall into, both in my appreciation of art, and in my recent attempts to write a novel.  I'm an iconoclast. I really like fiction that deconstructs common tropes.  I like art that turns common moments into objects of fascination.  When I set out to write a novel, I end up writing a novel about a narrator whose major flaw is too much trust in tropes.

I also appreciate formalism and animism, but the campfire that is hardest for me to understand is classicism.  I think the category somewhat suffers from its association with "classic" art, because I think that most of the time when artwork gets immortalized as "classic", it's not because the artist set out to do so.

For example, is Shakespeare a classicist?  A lot of Shakespeare focuses on the details of the plot, and linguistic wit of the characters, both of which are animist values.  However, regardless of artistic intention, perhaps classicism is the main thing people get out of Shakespeare today, if only because the other values don't age as well.  I don't know, I don't really care for Shakespeare.  Or classic works in general, really.

I find the four campfires personally validating, because I really like art, but this is hard to explain when I'm not much into popular art, and dislike most classic art.  Also, my favorite thing to do with art is complain about it.  But it seems there's still a place for me at one of the campfires.

Which of the four campfires would you say you value most?