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Three Lines: The Power of the Fairy Tale

January 20, 2016

 

Leo Tolstoy once said, “There is no greatness where there is not goodness, simplicity, and truth”.  I read that on the bottom of a yogurt wrapper that I had licked clean.  

 

I agree with Tolstoy.  I think one exceptional thing about art and stories is that we want to see ourselves within them.  When a politician talks to me from my television, when a theologian writes a book, when a friend offers me advice (when some yahoo writes a blog) - I retain a healthy distrust.  They must earn my trust before I will insert myself into what they are saying.  I keep a respectable distance.  By contrast, when an artist paints me a picture, when a cartoon makes me laugh, when a song makes me sad, when Cinderella loses her slipper - I find I am already looking at myself.  It is only afterwards that I wonder what it was that I learned about myself.  

 

One of my favorite books is “Understanding Comics” by Scott McCloud.  Within the book, he talks about the desire that we as people have to see ourselves.  We project ourselves into everything.  We see human faces in electrical outlets, car headlights, and ceiling textures.  Three lines on a page are three lines on a page, until we give those lines our own humanity - then those three lines become a face.  This is what makes cartoons possible - the fact that we, within ourselves, take something that is actually simple and thrust complexity onto it.  We “fill in the gaps” so to speak.  He goes on to say that simplicity itself is what makes this possible - we will not fill in gaps unless there are gaps to fill.  When presented with a simple character, we may naturally assign our own complexity to it, but when presented with a complex character, we sometimes don’t know what to make of it.  In the book he gives the example of a smiley face compared to a realistic drawing or photograph.  A photograph of someone can represent only one person - the person who is in the photograph.  Three lines on a piece of paper can represent anyone.  The more complex an image becomes the less we are able to assign it our own complexity - the less of myself I am able to project onto it.  This was profound to me.

 

The weakness of the cartoon’s ability to relate is actually it’s strength.  The cartoon takes us further from reality, and the further we get from reality the more we want to thrust reality into it.  The more gaps it leaves the more we want to fill it in. The fairy tale is in many ways the same.  It is an over-simplification of complex ideas.  It does not endeavor to see the world as it is, it takes the world and it tries to present it to us in comfortable gaps, skipping over unseemly circumstances with magic and chance. The dead girl isn’t really dead, she’s waiting for her true love’s kiss.  The frog is not really a frog - it is a prince in disguise.  The flower is only a flower if you believe it is, but if you say the magic spell it becomes a hot air balloon that will take you to the giant’s lair.  The giant, for that matter, must be evil because he is giant, and he must be giant because he is evil.  The witch must be cunning because she is ugly, and so on and so forth.  This is the fairy tale at face value, and if you choose to see it at face value it may very well despise the simplicity as a sort of lie, or wishful thinking.  As a text it may very well be over-simplified, but I think it is that simplification, that plain goodness and badness, that simple truth that gives it greatness.  We don’t need someone to tell us that the world is complicated - of course it is.  We don’t even need someone to tell us how it’s complicated, we only have to live in it for a small time to see  human desire, relationships, wars, greed, peace, religion, governments, media, opinions, facts, insecurities, commerce, ethics, and art all spinning in unison with a thousand other cogs and wheels to power the engine of human experience forward.  The fairy tale is not intimidated by the complexity of the engine, because it is not concerned with the engine - it never was - it stays just ahead of the engine, laying tracks.  The fairy tale does not try to weigh out the different scales upon which good and bad can come to exist in a kind of coalescent heap; it simply tries to show us that good and bad still exist in earnest, before they become convoluted.  It does not try to wallpaper over complexity with simplicity, on the contrary, it uses simplicity to remind us how severe complexity truly is.  To see the world in black and white may be naive, but to think it could be gray apart from both black and white is nonsense, and bad color theory.  The cartoon and the fairy tale take the scribbled fury of the world and break it down into three simple lines - so that we may scribble the world again on top of them. 

 

That is why I think The Scrimshaw Crown exists as a cartoon and a fairy tale - because what I’d like to bring into focus with the story is too serious, to important, for fine art.  Scrimshaw is in its own way a kind of scribble - a scribbling of my own testimony and spiritual journey.  The characters within the story are caricatures of myself in a way, traced down to simple lines so that others might also see themselves within them.  That is the best way I know to describe the “method” of Scrimshaw.  But the method of a work exists only to serve the spirit of a work - and my hope and prayer is that the method would do just that.  

 

Thanks for reading,

 

Matt

 

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