10 July 2012

the last word on genre

Last Saturday I went to see the Picasso exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I'm not even going to try to critique it (I like visual art, but I don't have the background to do a proper critique). I did want to share something from the explanatory plaque beside one of Picasso's early multimedia pieces. The piece in question is Guitare et bouteille de Bass, and its date was given as "fall 1913".

It was said by the art critic André Salmon in response to some of the initial confusion arising from the piece (people didn't know if it was to be hung on a wall, or treated like a sculpture, or what).

The English translation is:
"Now we are delivered from the imbecile tyranny of genres. It's neither one thing nor another. It's nothing. It's the guitar! Art will at last be fused with life, now that we have at last ceased to try to fuse life with art."
The French (and probably the original text) was given as:
"Nous sommes désormais delivrés de la tyrannie imbecile des genres. Ce n'est ni une chose ni l'autre. L'art sera enfin fusionné avec la vie, maintenant que nous avons finalement cesser de tenter du fusionner la vie avec l'art."
If you know both French and English (or if you can parse well), you'll see there are two short extra sentences in the English which are not present in the French, nor is their sense. Oh well, they don't change things.

But I want to emphasise: someone was already saying this about genre, in fine art.

In 1913.

When is our culture going to catch up with itself? Why do we have to keep repeating the same useless, circular debates over and over again? Salmon summed it up quite nicely almost exactly a century ago.  Genre may be all right for designating regions in the creative landscape, but simply cannot be applied to every single specific piece of art.



  1. I have a lot of trouble with these debates. Even "genre" means many different things to different people in the arts and entertainment businesses. There are literary writers for whom "genre" means a series of prototypical stories with conventions that must be met, and I join such critics in thinking that kind of formulaic genre chokes artistic expression and a lot of opportunities for creativity. But then there are plenty of "genre writers" for whom it's just a descriptor, and High Fantasy or Magical Realism or Erotica is only a vague flag that lets a certain audience know they can expect a certain range of content. Especially when all the parties in the arguments disagree on what each other even means, I can't imagine we'll catch up with ourselves soon.

    1. I agree it comes down to descriptive vs. prescriptive. Descriptively saying you're a horror writer is helpful to anyone trying to understand what kinds of stories you write. Prescriptively saying horror stories must include x, y, z elements or else they should be dismissed out of hand isn't doing anyone any favours, readers or writers.

      When I studied Blade Runner in film class back in uni, the prof read us a critique that basically complained the film didn't stick to either the science fiction or the film noir genres, and therefore had no place in the universe. Doesn't seem to have stopped people from liking it in the long run.

  2. I don't remember who said this (and I bet they said it better), but it is something I loved reading: Those who can create art, create art, those who can't create art, try to put it into convenient boxes.
    I think one of the first rules of creating art is breaking through all conventions, no matter what. Blade Runner is one of the awesome examples of the exciting things that happen when you do. Picasso is another. Just imagine Vincent van Gogh not breaking the rules. This is why art is one of the most exciting things in life :)


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