In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Princess Bride (!) please enjoy this repost of my 2004 essay about a style of art it exemplifies.
Deconstructionism, an influential post-modernist literary movement most closely associated with Jacques Derrida, shifted the focus of literary criticism away from traditional concerns such as plot, characterization, and the author’s intent, and towards an interactive relationship with the text in which every word and phrase was examined for all possible meanings, and in which the way the reader chose to experience the work was more important than the work itself. In reaction to this arrogation of the author’s role by the reader, a new style of writing appeared to both fulfill and challenge the deconstructivist reader’s expectations, with characters who are aware they exist within a work of fiction, authors who enter the narrative in order to argue directly with their own characters, and puzzle-box plots that compel the reader to construct her own meaning and interpretation.
Although intellectually dazzling, these works tend to be emotionally inert –all pyrotechnics and no heat. In response, yet another new kind of art and literature has quietly begun to gain in popularity and influence. Traditionalist in some respects and subversive in others, it revives the lost pleasures of classic storytelling, yet as married to some of the deconstructionists’ most dizzying innovations.
Reconstructivist art is a late stage in a progression very similar to the Cycle of Philosophers. Phase I is Stagnation, in this case representing the weariness of the classic forms of literature prior to the advent of deconstructionism. Phase II is Deconstruction, Phase III is Creativity, and Phase IV is Stability. Reconstructivist Art exemplifies the full flowering of creativity in the third phase of the cycle (just prior to the return to a more stable form of literature in the final phase).
The paradigmatic reconstructive artwork is author/screenwriter William Goldman’s “classic” fairy tale, The Princess Bride, both in its original form, as a novel (1973), and in the movie (1987) made from Goldman’s own adaptation for the screen. Viewed from one angle, the book has some very post-modern deconstructionism-influenced traits. The main plotline is framed by a conversation the author has directly with the reader, in which he describes the book itself as his own abridgment of a much longer book (a political satire from a little known European kingdom). The insertion of the author into the narrative, the discussion of the book within the book, and the attribution of the main text to a fictional second author are all very deconstructionist, as is the presentation of the plotline as being a coded commentary on the political fortunes of a fictional nation. In addition, as if to further distance the reader, the main characters are all introduced with playfully ironic superlatives, such as the “Most Beautiful Woman in the World.” Character descriptions of this sort would, in a proper fairy tale, simply be presented to be accepted as given. In Goldman’s narrative, however, they are married to a faux realism, and justified with elaborated provenances. To top it off, the main content of the book itself is littered with deliberate anachronisms and inappropriate intrusions of the author into the text. (In the movie version, the author’s voice is replaced by similar framing device in which the story is presented as being read from a storybook by a grandfather to a somewhat reluctant grandchild in a recognizably realistic and modern setting.)
Viewed from another angle, however, the book is surprisingly traditional, a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-regains-girl swashbuckling romantic adventure, complete with sword fights, a beautiful princess in distress, and a satisfyingly evil villain, all as tied together in a narrative with strong and doubtlessly deliberate echoes of the classic Douglas Fairbanks movies of the 1920’s. With the arch and unrelenting irony of the narrative voice on one hand, and the full-on sentimentality and romance of the plot on the other, one would suspect the book could function only (if it functioned at all) as a campy parody.
This is the characteristic challenge of a reconstructivist artwork. On the one hand is the tension produced by the deconstructionist influence, on the other is the consonance of a classic structure, two deeply opposed opposites. In this case, however, Goldman pulls off a minor miracle. He takes the raw ingredients of a parody, and uses them to produce a work with real depth and integrity. He breathes life into characters suspended on the line between archetype and stereotype, and suspense into patently contrived plot points. He conducts an all-out assault on the realism of his narrative, yet defies the reader’s ability to not believe; he undercuts the sentiment of his plotline with irony, yet defies the reader’s ability to not care.
Generalizing from The Princess Bride, therefore, we can begin to construct a theory of this new approach to art: A reconstructivist art work builds upon prior, deconstructionist artworks and techniques, but adapts them to classic themes and structures, with the goal of creating works of genuine emotion and significance. In this way, reconstructivism (when it works) combines the vitality and originality of deconstructionism with the comforts, pleasures and rewards of classicism. The overall purpose of reconstructivism is to reawaken a sense of the Real in a world in which everything has been demonstrated to be an illusion.
A reconstructivist artwork has four distinctive characteristics:
A Nod to Artifice: As with deconstructionist fiction, a reconstructivist artwork is explicitly aware of its own status as a creation, an illusion or a fiction.
A Classic Structure: Despite the inclusion of surprising or startling elements, a reconstructivist artwork is always based on a classic or conventional structure.
Transcontextual and/or Iconic Elements: A reconstructivist artwork is literally a construct, generally composed of decontextualized elements from many different sources. These elements are often exaggerated or made iconic and archetypal in a conscious, self-aware fashion. Often a direct reference is made to a prior work (real or invented), which itself may be based on another yet-earlier work.
Moments of Genuine Emotion or Significance: Unlike a deconstructionist work, a reconstructivist is not ironic, or if so, it cannot be merely ironic. It compels you to believe in its own deeper reality, even as it acknowledges its superficial artificiality. No matter how theatrical, cynical or shallow it might appear, a reconstructivist artwork must portray real emotions or inspire a genuine emotional response.
- Reconstructivist Art: Man of La Mancha
- Reconstructivist Art: Dr. Horrible
- Reconstructivist Art: Mona Lisa
- Reconstructivist Art: Kehinde Wiley
- Reconstructivist Art: American Born Chinese
- Sound of Silence: Reconstructivist Art
- Reconstructivist Art: Diesel Sweeties
- Reconstructivist Art: The Princess Bride
- Reconstructivist Art: Smooth Criminal
- Reconstructivist Art: The Lion King