Does art need to convey a message?
As a writer, my main job is to tell a story. Most stories focus on the wants of a character. For example, my protagonist may want answers, may want a change of scenery, may want love, may want revenge…you get the idea.
Recently, I was thinking about this and wondering if that always needs to be the case. Take poetry, for example. Poems can tell stories, but often they don’t. To me, poems are more like paintings made of words. They can convey emotion and feeling, painting a landscape without a beginning, an end, or a meaning.Same with painting. Looking at paintings in a gallery, you can see the ones that tell a story, or at least part of a story. Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper is an example of this. By contrast, Salvador Dali’s work rarely told a story, but instead were interpretations of his dreams, and possibly nightmares. They invoked reactions, emotional and spiritual.
Can fiction be seen the same way? Fiction is, and always has been, focused on storytelling. But does it need to be? Can it instead be used to invoke emotional reactions? Make the reader feel a certain way without actually taking them on a journey? Can characters simply exist like chess pieces instead of wanting or needing something?
I think it can. Samuel Beckett, the great Irish playwright, poet, and fiction writer, explored this idea in some of his work. One of his most famous plays, Waiting for Godot, focuses on two characters waiting for their companion, who never shows.
Of course, the two characters do want something – they want their friend to arrive. But overall, the story doesn’t consist of anything but two people sitting and waiting. There is no journey, there is no character development, there is no satisfactory conclusion. It’s almost an anti-story that is open for interpretation.
Several of Beckett’s plays and stories are like that, experiments with the written word. I’ve read quite a few of his pieces and seen recorded versions of Waiting for Godot and some of his shorter plays. Overall, I’ve enjoyed them. I like the surrealistic quality, the strangeness, the lack of traditional storytelling.
Granted, Beckett wasn’t exactly mainstream. He was lauded by critics and idolized in certain literary circles, but his work isn’t something you’re going to necessarily see made into a blockbuster movie or a series on a streaming service.
But still, it does go to show that stories can be told that aren’t necessarily stories. Sure, one could argue that they still have meaning, and I won’t disagree. It’s not traditional meaning, there isn’t always going to be a message or a story arc. The meaning, if there is any, may just be to elicit an emotional response or to strike a mood. Nothing more, nothing less.
In the end, it comes down to what you, the writer, have to say. Writing, like any other creative endeavor, can be anything you want it to be. A painting doesn’t have to be a still life or a portrait. It can be a Jackson Pollock or a Dali. Same with the written word. It can be a poem, a story, or an experiment in emotions.
A story doesn’t have to have a traditional meaning or any meaning at all. In fact, it might be a good writing exercise to work on something outside your wheelhouse, something different and strange. But be careful. You may end up creating a new literary movement.