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Modern art in sf - Input Junkie
March 7th, 2012
01:03 pm


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Modern art in sf
This reminded me of a minor mind-niggle-- there isn't much modern art that I can think of in sf.

So, just to give folks a chance at the pleasure of rummaging through their memories... what examples can you think of?

For purposes of this discussion, modern art is the styles which were developed in the 20th century which explored the aesthetic ranges which weren't generally popular, and which mostly ended up in museums and concert halls. I'm not saying all of it was awful or a fraud, just arcane. I like some of it.

The first example which came to my mind was the singing in the Thomas Covenant books-- iirc, solo singing in unfamiliar scales, without strong melody.

Mieville's Un Lun Dun (which I recommend highly) has a good bit of surrealist feeling imagery. The book has very fine puns and charming little pen and ink illustrations by the author.

I read it without knowing anything about it, and I think that's a good way to read it. There's a plot turn that everyone else seems to be delighted by, but didn't mean much to me. For what it's worth, I also thought there wasn't anything special about Neuromancer-- just a pretty ordinary piece of sf-- so go figure.

Cordwainer Smith's "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" tells both a culture-changing event, and about the art inspired by it-- at least one of the paintings was abstract.

It's been a while since I've read Delany's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, but as I recall, many of the book cubes weren't what we'd call usual narrative. And the street theater in Triton would count, I think.

Anything else?

For purposes of this discussion, I'm not interested in the narrator or a character complaining about experimental art, I want art which would have been considered experimental within the past century or so presented as normal.

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[User Picture]
Date:March 7th, 2012 07:15 pm (UTC)
You've covered all the examples I could think of off the top of my head and a couple more besides.

What this post inspires me to wonder is whether the lack of 20th-century-originating art could to some extent be a consequence of, for want of a better word, SF writers with literary ambitions caring about getting historical scaling right in some of the ways that other SF does not ?

OK, that's less clear than I thought, so I should probably unpack. I am inclined to think of, say, a setting that is nominally in the 25th century where people quote 20th century popular music (or other pop culture or near-term historical allusions) at the sort of frequency we would today, rather than at the sort of frequency with which we quote 15th century popular music, as having some pretty lazy worldbuilding going on. On the other hand, it strikes me as incredibly hard to include culturally significant works of art that are made up for one's made-up future and give them enough weight for them to convince as actually being culturally significant, and I can entirely see why one might not want to try.

Your definition of modern art specifies things that have only been around for about a century at maximum, and I can entirely see concluding that we do not have anywhere near the perspective on which of those will turn out to last and have meaning for people in the future, whereas the suggestion that Shakespeare or Aeschylus or the Mahabharata will endure down centuries and across cultural shifts strikes me as a safer bet given that they have already done so; and I wonder whether that goes some way to explain the relatively low frequency of allusions you observe ?

(You also remind me that I want to read Neuromancer again having read a comment about it on tor.com a couple of months ago pointing out an interesting set of parallels to Dante.)

Edited at 2012-03-07 07:16 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:March 7th, 2012 11:32 pm (UTC)
I think there may also be something in the parameters of what nancylebov is looking for. If the question specifies art that wound up in museums and concert halls, rather than experiments that caught on and became popular, it's harder to make room for them in the text, because neither "traditional music like 'Yellow Submarine'" nor a character described as having "an odd taste for old-fashioned flat comic books" fits.

There's a cartoon museum in Daniel Keyes Moran's The Big Boost, but that's only a few decades into the future, and the art is things like Bugs Bunny cartoons, which is definitely popular rather than museum stuff.

Edited at 2012-03-07 11:33 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:March 7th, 2012 08:01 pm (UTC)
How about Fritz Leiber's "Rump-titty-titty-tum-tah-tee"?

Pretty sure I read a story in Omni back in the day that had Picasso teaching someone about art, but I can't remember anything else about it (including the SFnal content), so maybe I'm mis-remembering.

One of my favorite details in Elliott S! Maggin's Superman novels (he wrote two, and I forget which this detail showed up in) was that Lex Luthor (this was the old mad scientist Luthor, not the modern wealthy businessman Luthor) maintained a secret identity as a modernist sculptor, so that he could cache weapons in art museums all the world's major cities.

One of Niven's Known Space stories has the protagonist puzzling over a piece of art designed to be touched.

It's been too long since I read Brust's The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars for me to remember the names of the paintings he uses as chapter titles.
[User Picture]
Date:March 7th, 2012 09:03 pm (UTC)
Fritz Leiber's story "Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-Tah-Tee" has some discussion of abstract expressionist painting, industrial design, and jazz. The story is humorous but doesn't seem to denigrate 20th century art as such; I have the impression that Leiber actually liked a lot of that sort of thing.
[User Picture]
Date:March 8th, 2012 02:02 pm (UTC)
You know, I've noticed this, too. It's an excellent point, and I can't really point to an example of it. You've given me something to think about...

I have one published exactly one story about abstract art, but it is not a form from the last century. I think we're all guilty of this particular omission.
[User Picture]
Date:March 8th, 2012 02:11 pm (UTC)
What sort of abstract art was it?

I don't think all sf writers are obligated to include modern art, but it's surprising to see no one showing an ongoing tradition from it.
[User Picture]
Date:March 8th, 2012 02:14 pm (UTC)
Oh, not obligated, but it's such a rich field that it's a huge pity no one is doing it!

As for the artwork story... Maybe it's easier if I link, as it's very, very short and free (please feel free to remove the link if you have a no-link policy here, and I'll just tell you about it, no worries): http://www.everydayfiction.com/virtuoso-by-gustavo-bondoni/
[User Picture]
Date:March 8th, 2012 08:14 pm (UTC)
I think most genre authors don't like (or are actively reacting against) abstract, experimental art forms. And even the ones that do experimental stuff themselves are more like Salvador Dali than Jackson Pollock.
[User Picture]
Date:March 9th, 2012 02:18 pm (UTC)
I have an unsupported speculation to add to kgbooklog's:

my guess is that there are narrative-related reasons for art to look bad in fiction and worse in SF.

1: if you want to include real-world artwork in your book to discuss its psychological or social impact then you'll probably want to use art the reader will know, and there are very few 20th century artworks in the same category of recognizability as, say, the Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo or even Gericault's Raft of the Medusa. Offhand I can only think of Matisse's Large Dancers, Picasso's Guernica and Demoiselles D'Avignon, and maybe the entire output of Henry Moore considered as one representative object, and I guess Dali's thing with the watches. So "serious criticism" in the guise of sf writing is unlikely to deal with more recent art. This I argue is a simple function of the art appreciation engine: works of the 19th century and earlier have been effetively canonized, incorporated in popular culture and repackaged as "things you should be aware of" if you're an average citizen - modern artists are almost all at the high dollar value end of the quiz show spectrum.
2. much "modern" art plays to or plays with "the shock of the new" - it's intended to elicit some reaction other than approbation. Also, the category of "modern art" is widely thought to deal in shock, whether individual artworks do or not. Most reactions involve discomfort - the reactionary is always hostile to the object of reaction - so it's easy to write dislike of art; it falls into common channels. In some sense just saying "there was modern art" does half the work for you. This correlation is especially strong in film, where villains of all stripes (but especially Bond villains) are routinely the great patrons of modernist art and architecture. Their decadent inhuman tastes show the audience their inner failings.
3. as an author, if you invent an artwork for your story that is supposed to be operative - to have some independent effect on the narrative and/or characters - then it's easiest to write that effect as disturbing or negative (a) because disturbance creates conflict (and that's why you'd include something in a story, right? Because art is circumstances (the problem) and the characters are agency (the solution) and (b) because there's a big established vocabulary for dealing with disturbing emotions - of signs, symbols, precedents, commonly-held taboos etc. If the picture makes the viewer happy, so what? And can you write that happiness in a way the reader shares? Will it be fun to read a description of a happy atwork? OTOH if the picture disturbs the viewer it's a hook. Why is it disturbing? Why did the artist make disturbing things? What recognizable signs does it contain that would also disturb the reader?

...I suspect all this is why there are hundreds of artworks dedicated to Dante's Inferno and hardly any to his Paradiso. The former is better rooted in the public consciousness, and we can all agree that we dislike pain, while the latter is better left to the reader's individual imagination - we all have somewhat different "happy places."
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