Reconstructivist Art: The Princess Bride

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:

  1. 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.

  2. A Classic Structure: Despite the inclusion of surprising or startling elements, a reconstructivist artwork is always based on a classic or conventional structure.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

19 Responses

  1. W. David Ward says:

    I’ve been intrigued by the idea of reconstructivism for some time and have enjoyed your site. I feel that my work, particularly paintings such as the ones at the accompanying link, very much conform to the characteristics I have found here and else where.
    Best regards,
    David

  2. Andrew says:

    I stumbled across this reading about The Princess Bride, and realized that it is a mode that I very much enjoy. After reading it, I constantly notice examples of it elsewhere. It has become a major elements of my aesthetics. Thanks!

  3. Stephen says:

    I’d heard the term Reconstructionivist in this context and wondered what it meant exactly, so thank you for educating me on this subject.

  4. Charles says:

    Nabokov introduces ‘Lolita’ as a found manuscript narrated and authored by Humbert Humbert.

  5. philoxenos says:

    I first read this article last year, and it is a great reference describing a feature of 21st century art that is surely becoming increasingly prominent. There is some music on my site that is influenced by reconstructivism in a certain (silent) way.

  6. Tracy Zuniga says:

    Thank you so much. I was having a very difficult time understanding Deconstructive vs. Reconstructive Postmodernism. After searching for hours, your website hit it home for me.

  7. Isis Africa says:

    This is an interesting concept. I would like to see what you have to say about Kehinde Wylie as a site of reconstructivist art. It should be interesting

  8. I am an artist and recently have been attempting to define what I see as an emerging art movement, after thinking about the movement I wanted to call it reconstructionism, so I was surprised to see your article that was in many ways similar and many ways very different, I was hoping to see what you thought about my idea. Obviously I need a new name.

    =======

    Postmodernism nurtured an inability to identify facts due to contextualization and deconstruction. Believing that all ideas became products of time and place with no more or less merit leaves little room for progress. Reconstructivists acknowledge that information is hard to piece together due to this extremely intricate and interconnected world. We however believe that this is no reason to be defeatist and that the best goal is an attempt at finding emergent patterns and to reconnect the deconstructed dots. Reconstructivists are aware of the overwhelming amount of information available, much of which is conflicting, and believe that what we need is a way to organize and connect this mountain of information in a more clean and concise manner than previously available. A reconstructivist either simplifies information to identify the core, or brings disparate areas of information together to create a new understanding.

    The Reconstructivist Manifesto:

    1: A reconstructivist work is similar to a math equation in that the final piece is the factual sum of its parts, and can be proven. Example: 156.4 net hours by Alejandro Almanza Pereda.

    2: Concept, aesthetics, material, and process, are all seamlessly entwined. The piece must be as direct and transparent as possible. The artist’s biography is unimportant to understanding the work. A reconstructivist artist does not possess a unique aesthetic but rather a conceptual theme that demands its own aesthetic. Example: Tara Donovan’s Glue or Cups. Marc Quinn’s Self. Tom Friedman’s ring of cups.

    3: Reconstructivism attempts to clarify not confuse, so their work should be as direct and straightforward as possible. Mark Lombardi.

    4: Reconstructivism embraces global realities or Truths. Cultures may hold differing faiths and beliefs, but the world can no longer embrace contradictory facts. Postmodern thought put all cultural beliefs on a level playing field, reconstructivists reject this thinking: facts can be proven. Believes the experience of Truth is a sublime one which society craves. Paul Rucker’s Proliferation.

    6: Reconstructivism rejects the irony, humor, pessimism, and obsession over faulty thinking that permeates postmodern art. We are instead concerned with what we can say about our world, what truths we can piece together.

    (important to note that all artists mentioned are not aware of my lumping them in this movement, and that many of their works do not fit within this movement)

    I would love to talk more.
    Ben Valentine

  9. Hopefully I appreciate what is the noble in the noble, as that is what makes one feel good about one’s self and world:

    But reading your article of reconstructionism for the same reasons I argued in an open letters with a writer for E-Flux journal that merely changing labels or minor perceptional points does not in essence change matters.

    Your points on art, are in a contextual negation of all that came before and lead up to deconstructionism. I too wish to find context for my art work, but the stepping off point as a root cause, is not deconstructionism but Dadaism, which in reaction to the bourgeois status quo in art that culminated in the brutal events of World War I and eventually which lead to World War II with similar consequences; and which continues today as it has since then can not be ignored.

    Currently I am in the process of writing a poetry manuscript where I was touching upon what I called “bourgeois art” monetized and marketed conservative and broadly liberal without soul or depth in context, realizing fulling at different times some bourgeois art played keys roles historically (Beethoven, Schiller,) in the ascent of the bourgeois in bourgeois democratic revolutions, which ascended and all but stopped in ascent as it acheives an apex.

    Today bourgeois society is in decline morals ethics law business as it becomes a heavy burdensome weight of opposing factions much like the end of the Roman republic.

    So what replaces it?

    Your reconstructionist art falls short for it presupposes the solutions to society’s grand problems, perhaps as a world view it is fine but on an international universal scale it is insufficient to address indigenous tribal art at the same time large scale corporate art on equal footings, for the art was not made in a vacuum.

    I will post this on my blog site also in the category Blog Waste. And make references but I find no reason to agree as you approach art merely as the deconstructionists have from what I describe as a tactical or utilitarian value of how to execute art; and how to rationalize art, which is not at issue as that is easy by merely making art. Art theory is for the bourgeois, artists make art, they learn theory and forget it, then struggle to produce it.

    As a foot note I have come to learn of Nelson Rockefeller the CIA and US government in the development of Abstract Expressionism (1950-1960s) as to oppose Soviet Realism. You should find that interesting to study since it exposes the shame and fraud of the art market, art academics and artists for the last 60 years to see how all these views were corrupt, how the Paris Review, Hudson Review, Encounters, and Congress for Cultural Freedom were used as CIA fronts.

  10. PS I am modifying my use of the term Reconstructionism to conform with your use of the term Reconstructivist, though it is interesting to note in religion Reconstructionism refers in Judaism to a modern branch of Judaism its tenets and beliefs which have similarly attempted to piece back together and repair what over time seems broken or outdated, exclusive and not holistic in Judaism, that is to me a kin to your reapproachment to art and deconstructivism.

  11. Megan Fleming says:

    I am studying Suzi Gablik’s book, The Reenchantment of Art, and wondered what has been happening in the 12 years or so since she wrote it. Thanks for the discussion of these schools of thought.

  12. I’ve been working on a self- motivated personal art project since february(photography and text). The finished result is a printed photography book about A Scottish fairy (I am Scottish) who goes on a visual and philosophical journey. I am also a teacher (teaching English in Spain)and I have always found the ideas of Friere very beneficial in my practice. I related very much to this article. The process of creating art and understanding the world are very much linked. It’s interesting for me to read this article after having completed the artwork, to realize that it was a process of reconstructon only on reflection. During the process, I was simply guided by my intuition and the desire to overcome the various obstacles that I faced while making it. For me, it has been not only a reconstruction of humanistic fable (a better world) , but also the reconstruction of a better self who is more able to exist now in the better world. I look forward to exploring these themes more. Best wishes

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