On art and anime

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(This is my very first picture posted with this domain. It’s a painting by Dong Yuan. It looks good for a very old work of art, doesn’t it?)

Ever since I was young, I always tried my hand at visual art. I, however, could never be as good as my sister (who was almost a genius when it came to visual art) or any regular person for that matter. In kindergarten, if I remember correctly, while they were making creative statuettes of different objects with clay I was often stuck with only a lump of inchoate stuff. Ever since I could remember, I always sucked at art.

Twelve or so years after that remembrance, in a retreat to discover or make ties with God once again, we were required to draw a picture. To keep it simple and to test myself if I ever improved with art, (I avoided touching coloring materials whenever it didn’t need to be touched, and when there was schoolwork that needed visual art, I always asked the help of others.) I tried to draw a large pot with a little, frail tree growing in it. No matter how I tried to twist my hand or tried to refine how my fingertips moved, what I had – all that I had – was a picture as vapid as the purple-blue waters silent in the night, as if melding with the darkness: one couldn’t even tell if it was a flower pot, and the leaves weren’t even discernible from one another. It seemed as if a two-year old child accidentally held two crayons and made something acceptable in his young age. That was the extent I thought my drawing was ugly. (Incidentally, I tried scanning that picture to post here just to prove how badly I drew, but even the scanner could not form the picture properly: all it showed was some dots, and nothing more.) It reminded me of a time past where despite I persevered in making a good drawing I had to settle for a score of C. Yet there were people who didn’t even exert a quarter of the effort I exerted but had higher grades. There are just some things where one sucks at. I could be a good abstract expressionist1, though.

From the inception of my cognition, however, I looked at art with more than simply an admiration. Whenever I looked to our old bible for pictures depicting Christian occurrences, I saw paintings by (visual) artists such as El Greco2, Rembrandt3, and Caravaggio4. (Dad told me once that Caravaggio was known for his contrast between light and shadow.) Whenever I looked for books to read, I always observed and marveled at the front cover pictures, especially those books released by the Oxford University Press. Among the books published by the OUP, one that struck me greatly was that of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ A Rebours5 (Against the Grain) that dealt with an extremely progressive aesthete known as Des Esseintes. Going back to the topic, its front cover was that of Salome6. It was there that I discovered the paintings of Gustave Moreau7, and despite not knowing much about art except a dabble here and there, he’s one of my personal favorites.

In Tolstoy8‘s What is Art?, his general notion of what art is is that it is an evocation of the artist’s feelings that synchronizes totally and deeply affects the audience to the extent that the feelings that they feel are exactly that of the artist, that at one point in time, the artist and the audience are one. He continues that among art’s characteristics, sincerity is the most important.

If this is so, anime is art – at least, good anime is when taken according to the gist of Tolstoy’s defintions. Anime is art, also, when taken from its roots in Latin. It came from the word ars, meaning ‘skill’ or ‘craft.’9 It is a cocktail of formidable visual artwork (an art in itself), sharp and masterful animation (another art in itself), and an intelligent and meaningful script/plot/story (the writing and the creation of which is another art in itself). We can thus say that anime is art if not a conglomeration of its different disciplines.

Some people believe that art is only understood by those who are or were immersed in it; some believe that one must be an art critic or must know by heart the different artistic movements: pointillism10 … they believe that the common man, or the casual observer cannot even fathom what art means, that these people who do not know art as they do are only second-guessing.

There are, similarly, people who think that anime can only be appreciated by those who know the Japanese language by heart, by those who understand and imbibed Japanese culture, and by those who know the different people or the who’s who in the anime industry.

I call these people elitists. I think that these people are a bunch of curmudgeons. As Tolstoy wrote, the existence of art depends on the emotions and feelings that are conveyed; emotions and feelings are not staid and constant like most facts, however. These are as fickle and as inconstant as the wind blowing. These are not definite: to criticize these emotions is simply to criticize what one is: human. Therefore, although one does not know Japanese, although he does not know the who’s who of the industry, and although he doesn’t really care about these things, he can approach anime as much as these critics do. Art, anime, and emotions are for the whole of humanity, not just for the people who call themselves learned.

(Although I used Wikipedia a lot in my footnotes, bear in mind that this isn’t any formal paper: I used footnotes simply because they kept my post devoid of links, keeping my post clean. This is a serious post, however.)


1 As I understand, abstract expressionism is an (visual) art movement which is done spontaneously and quickly. It is the form of visual art where the paintings seem only like splatters and splotches of paint, because the artists in this movement want the audience to feel the creativity of their unconscious minds. When viewed not knowing that they are part of the abstract expressionist movement, they seem just like childish scribbles.

5 Refer to here. That is where I discovered Gustave Moreau. I didn’t provide the whole link in this case because the whole link transcends the page.

6 Salome was a biblical character whose dancing for Herod lead to the beheading of St. John the Baptist.

8 Leo Tolstoy was a prominent Russian writer. He wrote masterpieces like War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

13 Responses to “On art and anime”

  1. helspectre Says:

    All in all, art is defined by the viewers and hence the only thing at debate is perspective.

  2. ~Lost Says:

    >>There are, similarly, people who think that anime can only be
    appreciated by those who know the Japanese language by heart, by
    those who understand and imbibed Japanese culture, and by those who
    know the different people or the who’s who in the anime industry.

    I call these people elitists. I think that these people are a bunch of
    curmudgeons. As Tolstoy wrote, the existence of art depends on the
    emotions and feelings that are conveyed;..

    I dont dispute all of that, yet, what conveys emotions and feelings? For one, Language does, and in fansubs, how many words/phrase/expressions in Japanese can be accurately ported over into English? And that is why, especially with the less eh.. ‘established’ fansubs, I always find some inevitable loss in translation – thus, I agree with those who say knowing Japanese helps to really appreciate, to the FULLEST, the whole point the Anime is trying to put across.

    You know me, I am by no means an elitist, and I certainly hope you don’t think I’m a curmudgeon. 🙂

    Facial expressions, and yes, actions also convey emotions, many times, much more than Language can ever do. And yes while it can be said that such expressions/actions can be universally understood (being, as we are, all Humans) what about nuances that can only be caught with those of full knowledge of Japanese culture? The tilt of the head, the position of her head, the shift of her legs.. subtle nuances that I’m sure I myself blunder over while watching an Anime. This means again, that I cannot appreciate the Anime the way it was meant to be; fully.

    To an extent, I agree with your point on

    >> and by those who know the different people or the who’s who in the
    anime industry.

    tho, in certain cases, even such knowledge is required when the Anime contains subtle references to them, more often than not for comedic-relief purposes. Take Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu for example; I never watched FMP, and didnt know that KyoAni did FMP too, and thats why the Fumoffu reference completely passed over my head ~ and I only understood when it was laughed over at Animesuki. The fact is, I didnt appreciate that point of humour (which IMO is as much a feeling as love) because I didnt know!

    My point: people who say that are somewhat justified; they arent elitists, I think they are realists.

  3. Hige Says:

    Art, during the time of Rembrandt for instance, was an actual method of making a living rather than a saturated pretence it is today. The roots of the word ‘art’ as you define it (‘skill’) relate to ‘artisan’, as in someone who creates something to make money from it (hence the insane amount of skill and precision these artists demonstrated). It removes a lot of the romance from these Golden Age artists, but I love it. Practicality undermining posturing is always fun to watch. The fact that most of their work was done by workshops of artists rather one specific genius is another fun fact many people don’t know.

    But in relation to your main point, I think anime has the potential to be art in the same any kind of media can be. If we’re talking about art in the sense of something definitive, superlative etc., then it takes a selection of special things to happen. Many people might call the seminal Ghibli films ‘art’, but as helspectre notes it’s all about perspective.

    As for the view of original Japanese being the purest way to view anime, I agree to a minor extent. Japanese to English and vice versa is painfully subjective, and things are bound to be lost in translation – I’m especially fearful of this with Japanese novels that are translated into English. The finer points of the writing might be lost, but if a work is deserving of the title of ‘art’ then it will transcend this problem with much more important things. This goes for anime, too, I think.

  4. cebukitty Says:

    Beauty, as well as art, lies in the eyes of the beholder. I’m absolutelyfreakinglyinsanely in love with anime art, period.

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