Stories – narratives, if you prefer a little more pretence – are so ubiquitous that we are seldom conscious of them. Even when we go to sleep, in our dreams our minds weave often vivid narrative experiences in our inner world.
Until a couple of centuries ago, the ways we had of telling our stories were limited, and had only changed gradually over the millenia. At first, we had oral stories: whatever anyone might claim, undoubtedly one of the main purposes for the development of human language. We then started to illustrate these with paintings, as seen in caves around the world. Next we invented ways of writing our speech down, and recording stories which could be passed on verbatim.
The world’s great religions accumulated first oral then written compilations of stories, describing how the world and humans came about, tracing tribal histories, and those of prophets and God.
Painting developed into fine art, providing the only manmade images that people saw. Our ancestors were able to read the stories in such paintings even though most could not read their own written language. Printing presses made it possible for increasing numbers to have their own images and written stories, and mass media started to flourish.
A couple of hundred years ago, the pace of change increased markedly as a result of technology. First, still photography made it possible for anyone to have an image made of themselves, and to see images of people and events, without the intermediary of a painter. Then came movies and the cinema, radio, television, and most recently of all, computers and electronic games – each spreading more elaborate storytelling to more and more people.
Whether or not the first consumer virtual reality (VR) headsets now being sold by Oculus mark the ‘year of VR’, they are another milestone in our obsession with the story. The games and other narratives which Oculus users will immerse themselves in have finally become almost completely real.
But what is fascinating about all these different means of telling stories is that the new have not replaced the old. We still tell one another stories just as much as our illiterate ancestors did. Far from killing written stories and books, new technologies have enabled them to proliferate. When we go on holiday, we don’t just take a couple of reading books, but Kindles and iPads packed with many titles. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels made their movies a great success, which in turn promoted book sales. JRR Tolkien’s wonderful synthetic myths became far more widely-read once more people had seen the movies.
One reason for the continuing popularity of more traditional means of storytelling is their lack of explicitness, and reliance on the imagination. Many of those who read the book and watch the movie choose to return to the book, because only there can they create their own mental imagery of the story. This was amply demonstrated by Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, originally broadcast on radio, then turned into books, and only latterly – and least successfully – into TV series and then a movie.
VR has the huge disadvantage in that it replaces almost all imagination with explicit sensory input. Those weaving stories for VR systems are going to have to work hard to keep the imagination active, or VR risks turning into nothing more than a passing theme-park experience with the transience of memes. It is encouraging that there is so much research taking place in narrative for computer gaming and VR.
The one narrative medium which remains an endangered species is painting. The popular neglect of narrative painting which developed during the nineteenth century was followed by an orgy of self-destruction, in the hands of over-influential critics and art for the art industry’s sake, during the twentieth century. It brought painting to the brink of total collapse as an art, which thankfully is now being reversed. One reason for my intensive series of articles here about narrative in painting is my belief that, without thriving and healthy narrative genres in painting, few people will enjoy contemporary painting as much as they do the paintings of the past.
We have reached an exciting chapter in the story of narrative. I can’t wait to turn the page.