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The Artist/Consumer Contract
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I was thinking more about the ending of No Country For Old Men, and no I'm not going to explicitly talk about the ending, so this should be fairly safe reading.

I came across a negative review which allowed comments, and some of them were along the lines of: "You just don't get it. It's art. If you want something conventional, go watch a Die Hard movie." And so on.

So I wonder...when is it good for an artist to defy convention, and when is it just crappy art? I don't happen to think it's relative, but that there are some objective standards for quality in art.

In common writing advice, they warn against the overuse of cliches. In speculative fiction, stories about deals with the devil or ones in which two protagonists named Adam and Eve end up shipwrecked alone on a planet are typically a no no. Why? Because they've been done to death. There is no freshness, and since the reader can see exactly what's coming, there are no surprises.

However, if the storytelling goes too far the other way, and is too far from convention, the story doesn't work either. Trying to write a story using only verbs, for example, would be unconventional, but probably wouldn't work. In terms of plot, if you've written a 1000-page novel set in Colonial America, following the trials and tribulations of three generations of families, only to have it end with a three-headed dragon bursting from the earth and burning the village to the ground, that probably wouldn't be a very good story.

One flip-side to have an ill-fitting ending is to basically have no ending at all. This is certainly unconventional, but it doesn't feel interesting or daring because the author hasn't put much work into it. It feels lazy, in other words, like the author set up a great story but decided not to put in the work to bring about a meaningful conclusion.

I'm also still listening to Stephen Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, and he's talking about Grice's Maxims, which are basically guidelines for effective communication between cooperative partners. They are:

Maxim of Quality: Truth

* Do not say what you believe to be false.
* Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Maxim of Quantity: Information

* Make your contribution as informative as is required for the current purposes of the exchange.
* Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Maxim of Relation: Relevance

* Be relevant.

Maxim of Manner: Clarity

* Avoid obscurity of expression. ("Eschew obfuscation")
* Avoid ambiguity.
* Be brief ("avoid unnecessary prolixity").
* Be orderly.

The artist/consumer relationship is more one-sided than a conversation, but I think the maxims still apply. An unconventional ending like the kinds I've talked about may defy quantity or relevance. If there is essentially no ending, the full story arc hasn't been told. Imagine if Tolkien had killed off Frodo in the swamps on the way to Mordor and just ended the book right there, leaving numerous threads unresolved. He would have been within his rights as an artist...but would it have been as good a story?

I'm also reminded of when I talked about surprise. It seems to me as if there are four broad categories of ways in which we react to predictions:

Predictable/Good: We correctly predict an outcome that conforms to our desired goals. E.g., We take a bite of warm apple pie, expecting it to be tasty, and it is.

Predictable/Bad: We correctly predict an outcome that is contrary to our goals. E.g., We take a bite of moldy cheese, expecting it to taste bad, and it does.

Surprise/Good: We incorrectly predict an outcome that conforms to our goals. E.g., A nice Christmas present that we didn't predict, or a surprise birthday party.

Surprise/Bad: We incorrectly predict an outcome that is contrary to our goals. E.g., Someone crashes into our car on the way to school/work.

Good art is not necessarily about defying predictions. I think a well-written, conventional thriller falls into the Predictable/Good category. If a work of art is going to surprise us, it needs to do so in a pleasing way. I love it when I'm surprised by a plot twist, but for the plot twist to work it has to fit the story.

If one just falls back on the "It's art, man...You just don't get it," then there essentially would be no yardstick for measuring quality, and you could justify any piece of storytelling as good, including dreck like Battlefield Earth or Glitter. And I don't think anybody wants to live in a world where those movies could be considered good...ever.

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