By VAYNE ONG, freshman
Having been surrounded with mostly science fiction/fantasy enthusiasts for friends, I sometimes forget there are people who have never heard of Avatar: The Last Airbender or—prepare to gasp—fervently despise it. I can’t deny, however, that the premise of this children’s animated TV show isn’t at least a bit laughable—a bald, oftentimes immature 12-year-old named Aang with the ability to manipulate air currents is responsible for the fate of the physical and spiritual world.
But beneath this façade of schoolboy humor and easy-to-follow plot lines lie truly dark and dismal themes—betrayal, war, genocide. It tells a captivating and emotional tale and, more importantly, does so artfully. We laugh as Aang and his companions consistently knock over a merchant’s cabbage stand; we cry for Aang when he discovers his beloved mentor was exterminated in a war; we are shocked by a woman who takes the blood and body of others quite literally into her own hands. And it is for these reasons that Avatar: The Last Airbender can be considered art, because art isn’t about the technical difficulty of the process or the fact that the show is targeted for boys aged 9 through 14; art is about conveying messages and emotions, connecting foreign ideas to deeply human ones. Non-traditional art can do this and so much more, better than “traditional” and “realistic” forms of art ever will.
However, Avatar: The Last Airbender, like many other works of science fiction or fantasy, is still looked down upon for not being within the conceptual boundaries set by more realistic art. Yes, it more accurately captures our world; it is more honest, more straightforward, and definitely more relatable. I’m more likely to empathize with Rory Gilmore’s pre-test anxiety than Karl Agathon’s marriage to a humanoid cyborg. And it’s not like shows set in the “real” world can’t successfully deliver themes and messages. The political drama The West Wing is able to communicate messages about morality, civility, and bipartisanship, without any science fiction/fantasy tropes (though the idea of hyper-competent government officials seems a bit farfetched). But the freedom to see society and the universe on a grand scale and to explore a wider range of themes is reduced to fit within the confines of reality.
Exactly how can The West Wing or Gilmore Girls or The Good Wife, set in the “real” world, logically deal with, say, the relationship between man and supernatural forces (without completely detaching from the original premise)? The same goes for the visual arts, movies, and books. Can the Mona Lisa explore the same weightlessness and “feeling of infinite space” as Kazimir Malevich’s abstract painting White on White? Is Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind even capable of exploring reality versus perception as Christopher Nolan’s film Inception? Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice will forever remain a classic analysis of 19th century English society, but is it really able to explore the broad range of themes in Harry Potter? Not to say that the Mona Lisa, Gone with the Wind, and Pride and Prejudice are in any way lesser or worse works, but they simply do not have the same capacity to explore humanity on a broader scale.
Additionally, because non-traditional art is naturally going to be far outside of the box, it’s unlikely you will ever lose interest, provided it is actually good. Good non-traditional, abstract art will provide a healthy balance between a captivating subject and a complicated backstory. In visual abstract art, the subject will usually appear to be devoid of meaning, bearing little to no resemblance to any identifiable object or relatable concept in reality. Jackson Pollock’s famous “drip” painting Autumn Rhythm, seemingly done by a chimpanzee with no concept of visual object recognition, still includes an “extraordinary balance between accident and control”, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, producing our captivating subject. Here, a complicated backstory is replaced by the emotions it invokes—a sense of freedom and chaos—in its lines “light and dark, thick and thin, heavy and buoyant, straight and curved, horizontal and vertical”. From there, the final interpretation of the composition’s lines and contrast in shape and color is up to the spectator— either it’s a “spiritual” representation of nature’s chaos or it’s just a lot of weird shapes on a canvas. Nevertheless, abstract art provides its audience with an enthralling, occasionally confusing experience, on top of the freedom for interpretation.
It is only natural that art moves further away from realist traditions; we’re developing, progressing, evolving. Traditional art hasn’t completely died yet, but it’s also important to acknowledge that good non-traditional art exists as well. So before you post “ART IS DEAD AND THERE’S NO HOPE FOR HUMANITY” in the YouTube comment section of a Nickelback music video, go on Netflix and watch a couple episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender or visit New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.