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How to see Literature and Art in it’s Cultural Context

This is a list of how to generally see most pieces of writing work through the lens in which it was created. Why is this list necessary? Well for starters, nuisance is everything. The quicker one can spot nuisance, the faster you can break it all down into components and see a closer interpretation of the will of the author. As you read on, think about what connotations are implied in a piece you enjoy. Think of what word choices are being used and where it leads you to feel. This is not a list delving deep into the craft or style of a specific piece, but rather a list that provides perspective to the skeptical eye. Subtext and nuisance. Master these and you are well on your way to understanding far more than you realize when you analyze a piece.

  1. When was it created?

This is a great thing to do when looking at any piece, from a work of literature to a sculpting in a museum. It is always good to know the time period it was made, and how old it is. This gives you a sense of the culture of the time, which is number 3. What this also does, is immediately open up further questions for interpretation. Though this is tempting I urge you to do a few more things before solidly locking your answers.

  1. Who was the creator?

This really should be the first step, there is a very fine line between art and artist. A true skeptic will be able to read the artist through their work in time,be able to see the nuisance, just like a good artist will know how to express themselves through their medium in time, it is all just practice. It is also good to know the creator because one can decipher the immediate intentions of the piece once they realize what the artist is going for or wants to reflect.

  1. What was the culture like at the time?

Cultures go through shifts and transform depending on the state of the inhabitants within that culture. As the current culture shifts and ebbs, the people change as well, and vice versa. If people in a society grow up in a specific way, the art will eventually reflect it, when the art reflects it, it seeps back into our culture as the new normal. This process happens whether or not one is in agreement or disagreement on how it came to be.

An example of this is Postmodernism. Look at how America was only 50 years ago and look at the nation now. In the arts, postmodernism is now a legitimate genre, for bad or for worse. It was created from a general distrust of modernism and traditional theories and ideologies, this matches perfectly with American society’s skepticisms and abilities to both think constantly about nothing and overthink about everything. How is that possible? No clue, but postmodernism is the sad result. This is why looking at culture in the past and comparing it to the present is vitally important in the arts.

  1. Who is the audience?

Just as you can understand a piece by understanding the artist, you can also figure out a lot by whose eyes were meant to see it. Is it a painting by Michelangelo for the eyes who enter the Sistine Chapel? Perhaps it is a short book meant for those who are grieving, like CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed? It could even be a letter to a loved on but whatever it may be, knowing who it is addressed for opens up a world of interpretive tools as to what the meaning as a whole is.

  1. What IS the piece?

This is probably the easiest thing to decipher… Unless it is a postmodern piece of art. Even still, is it a piece of literature? A letter? Screenplay? This can also be applied to physical pieces of art, sculptors, paintings. This can be followed up with — Why does the artist like this specific medium? What does he/she express through this medium that they cannot any other? Yes we have a lot of questions we need to ask ourselves but if you want to become a great storyteller; NUISANCE IS EVERYTHING.

  1. What is the message of this piece?

Ah, finally we have arrived. After researching all the above and understanding the context in which a piece was made, we can deduce the cultural meaning we as a people can take away from it, the meat. Here is the tricky part— we can not be selfish here. Keep in mind everyone can have their own interpretation. However I invite you a little further to find a deeper sort of meaning. There is only one meaning in every piece that gets distorted as it makes copies in everyone’s imagination. The sentence, “That dog ate my sandwich!” It has only one meaning, though others may think differently. Take the word, “dog” for example. Naturally you will be thinking of an animal. I would like to pleasantly surprise you by actually speaking of a nasty person. “That dog ate my sandwich! Rick’s always eating everyone’s lunch like a dog waiting for scraps.” You see? It’s a simple example except the sentence itself has multiple meanings. By putting everything in its context, it helps us take that extra step for more nuisance to flow revealing even more subtext to be properly understood.

I urge you, storytellers, to practice this daily whenever you read and study a piece of culture or art. Everything in its context helps us as culture shapers understand the world around us. It helps us search for a deeper magic if that work is appropriate here. As CS Lewis wrote through the voice of Aslan in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe … “though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation.”

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