A few weeks ago, I read a really interesting article about comics by Yo Zushi on the New Statesman’s website. The whole article is worth reading, but the part that really caught my attention was probably the first two paragraphs.
These paragraphs are about the whole subject of “style vs substance” and, although they’re probably too long to quote in full – the basic point of these two paragraphs is that, in many types of creative works, style matters as much (if not more) than substance does.
I don’t know why, but I’d never really thought too much about the whole “style vs substance” thing in my own creative work until I read this article. But, looking over my own art, it usually tends to be a lot more about expressing a thought, a particular atmosphere, a moment in a story or just something random (that looks cool) rather than anything deeply symbolic or meaningful.
Likewise, when I wrote a lot of fiction, most of my emphasis was on telling a funny, dramatic,futuristic, erotic, scary and/or cool story than on trying to make some deep point about the human condition or anything like that. Yes, sometimes ideas and emotions that were prominent in my mind at the time would find their way into my fiction in some kind of oblique or symbolic way, but they were rarely the main point of the story.
So, counter to what I expected, I really do value style over substance in my own work.
In many ways, I’d argue that art lends itself towards this kind of thing because you’re usually just creating a single visual image. You can fill that image with deep symbolism and meaning but, unless it looks interesting, most people won’t be bothered with it.
Likewise, “style over substance” works of art can become a lot more popular than more “meaningful” works of art for the simple reason that other artists will look at it and think “that looks cool. I’ve got to find a way to sneak it into my own work“. Interesting pieces of “style over substance” art can effectively end up spawning lots of other works of art.
Ironically, trying to add substance to a work of art that doesn’t have it can completely ruin that work of art. A good example of this would be some of Damien Hirst’s conceptual works (and conceptual art in general) – these artworks consist of things like a shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde and stuff like that.
If Damien Hirst had just said “I made it because I thought that it would be funny” or “I made it because it looked weird“, then I could respect this. But, most of these random works of conceptual art have incredibly pretentious-sounding titles like “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living“.
Trying to add a deeper meaning to something that doesn’t really have one (after all, it’s just a dead shark) shows how many people tend to insist that art must have some kind of greater “substance” to it. But, more often than not, art is just art. It looks cool, it evokes emotions and/or it sparks the imagination. If there’s a deeper meaning to it, then this is a bonus – but it shouldn’t be a requirement.
When it comes to fiction, this subject becomes a lot more complicated. After all, stories have to tell.. well.. a story. And, well, most stories tend to have some kind of meaning to them for the simple reason that they both show a series of events and how the characters in that story are affected by these events. This, in and of itself, shows us something about humanity and the human condition.
But, at the same time, I’d argue that a good story tends to see deeper meanings etc.. as a secondary thing. A good story might contain a deeper meaning or some kind of “substance”, but this is often hidden in the background because the emphasis is on telling an enjoyable story that people will actually want to read.
I mean, it’s very telling that literary novels (which have a lot of “substance”) often have a fairly low readership compared to more interesting genres like sci-fi novels, thrillers, romances, fantasy novels etc..
So, in conclusion, style probably does matter a lot more than substance.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂