Monday, December 6, 2010

visual cliches and how to detect them

I’m very familiar with verbal cliches.  I find writing that incorporates a lot of them to be like eating old dried out cakes that have long lost their flavour.  Typical examples would be:

         “[He] put his lips on her neck.  she thought: “Other lips have been there. God, I am in a cage!””
“His eyes roamed across her bosom, as well as his inquiring fingers.”   
“If we all pull together as one man, we’ll discover the answer and then we’ll know everything!”

“He needs to step up to the plate…….
and get his ducks in a row”

Good fresh writing, like good fresh bread, has lots of interesting little chewy bits, rich flavours and enticing aromas that you can savour.  It can be clean and simple and pure like the best water or lettuce or apples, or it can be quite flowery!  Here are some examples…
“Her mind felt like a mirror: everything in it came from somewhere else”.  (Mark Salzman)
“The silence in the room came alive, like the positive space in a Chinese landscape painting or the words left out of a poem. ” (Mark Salzman)
“It is a drastically interesting country, America is, and you are lucky to get away without regret, loss of tin, or the Spanish clap”. (Sebastian Barry)
“The sun lay in a shaft on the window seat and along the old flowered carpet….At four o’clock she made a cup of tea and carried it back to her shaft of sunlight, as if seeking protection”.  (Anita Brookner)
When one first begins to write The Great Novel or The Memoirs the initial outpourings are stuffed with trite statements and old tired metaphors and phrases and you have to go beyond that, far beyond, to be able to reach something worthwhile , something that is new and genuine and fresh.   That is very evident. (There is also a lot of redundancy that must be cut out!)
But how about visual cliches?  I think one of the problems with many of the quilts we make and see is that we fall right into the same difficulties as the beginning writer and produce stale tired visual cliches.  So what are some typical ones, and how can we spot and eradicate them?  I’m not suggesting for one moment here that I can do this by the way!  But I’m becoming so aware that this is a major problem to be avoided.
a vis cli

Oh yes we do!!  Hunt them out :) !!

Hearts!!!   I don’t care if I never see a heart again!  Especially pink ones  and  oh, the crassness of   I ♥ visual cliches!  
People strolling at the edge of the ocean symbolizing deep thoughts and fine sentiments (there was actually a 9 minute you tube of one of those on Facebook this morning!).
And of course we all know what the crashing waves mean when we cut away from a torrid (oops! cliche!) love scene.
And then there’s the ubiquitous hand shake…the hands meeting across continents or some great divide. Yes! seen it! Please don’t make a quilt about it!! 
Looking through a popular quilt book I came across many examples: tear drops!, irregular edges (when not a necessary part of the content) especially those where a vine or a leaf  hangs from the bottom.    People with blank faces.  Collages of street signs, and text or handwriting on a quilt is getting very stale now too.  Dividing things up with sashes and borders (especially when they appear to be unrelated!), rows of things: flowers, trees, hands….
Images taken from cards (a double cliche!), happy dogs, puppies, kittens and kids  and koi– of course!  Things stuck on top – like leaves!
It is easier to spot cliches in representational work which is why, I think, so many dislike it but abstract work also has its cliches.  I’m afraid that irregular log cabins and irregular squares within a square have also become something of a cliche.  Everyone has done it!  Great the first time, then it was fresh…but now?
And there are cliched colour choices too – predictable groupings of colours, just look through any popular quilting magazine: the South West look for example.  Turquoise and ginger and black.  And so on.   Nauseating rainbow effects.  Or all sweet sugary pastel colours.  Or, cor blimey fabrics created by throwing violent colours on top of each other into some kind of 3,000 calorie dye sundae!   And be careful you bleachers and rust dyers…it’s becoming obvious! 
Anything that is trite, overused, predictable begins to look superficial, tarnished and worn.  As with verbal cliches, it is very hard to get away from visual ones for these are the images we are saturated with and they are the ones that come first to our minds.  But I for one am going to try to Root them Out!  this is why it is often the third or fourth or fifteenth idea about a quilt is better than the first one. 
  Let’s leave the cliches to the advertisements where they belong! Trash with trash!
The first step in quilt making is learning the cutting and  sewing techniques – the equivalent of learning to read and write.  The second step is being able to design good compositions: the equivalent of good grammar. 
Now the next step would be to put our reading/writing/grammar skills to use in a creative writing class….and write and write and be coached, encouraged, evaluated, critiqued over and over to help us reach the truth and eradicate the dross.
If you have been, thanks for reading!!  and please do post examples of visual cliches in the comments!!  I look forward to it!  Elizabeth
PS take a look at the blog store if you're looking for presents ! Scroll down for lots of affordable smaller pieces! Thank you!


Deb Lacativa said...

thanks for the nudge. I've been looking at those heads with no faces on the thing I'm working on now and knowing I'm going to have to commit to features - somehow.

Gerrie said...

Have you been inside my brain again? LOL

Diana Parkes said...

Well said! Now you know why I don't do quilts.

cyn said...

huh... well, i think what makes something a visual cliche is how deeply the subject is explored - or not.
can you take something that's been done before but look at it differently or present your own signature?
the elements in my work are not new. but hopefully, i am finding new and playful ways to present something that is culturally familiar yet unique to my voice. i love birds, HEARTS, floral motifs, bees, body forms... things that have been around probably as long as mark making.
i don't know if i'm pushing hard enough to be original. i do know i'm trying hard to, though!
i like to read your blog bc it brings up interesting questions to think about.

Anonymous said...

found you through deb's site.

this is a great post.

definitely has me thinking.

Anonymous said...

Fodder...good fodder, creativity is a learning curve, and curves tend to meet..albeit eventually. Always what is old becomes new... forcing something into the 'old' category doesn't always work... but all the best in trying...

Terry Grant said...

Heron standing in shallow water--I have declared a moratorium on heron quilts, but no one is paying attention. They just keep making them.

Black and white multiple prints--sometimes with a touch of red added.

Huge flower a la Georgia O'Keefe.

June said...

What I find interesting is that one person's cliche is another person's inspiration. Some of it is education -- I think art teachers must be the most bored people on earth (except for freshmen comp teachers). In art classes, the students are trying hard to get the attention of someone who has seen (and probably done) it all. But for the naive (artist or spectator), cliches sometimes are truly affecting -- they seem to embody something that no one saw before. They haven't had the exposure of the bored teacher.

And herons, as Terry mentioned, are a NW thing -- if you want to say you are tuned into nature, put a heron is some watery fabric and call it "Going home" or some such. Like Terry, I despair when I see another heron (or kokopelli) quilted art. But I suspect that for Pennsylvanians,where they have only recently returned(I grew up in the mountains there) the heron might feel vital and real and a return to an older, more true way of life. A quilted heron might resonate differently in that environment.

Cliches in one language are fresh in another -- the formal "I am very well, thank you" in French as opposed to "fine, thanks" in English feels a quite different answer to the question "how are you doing?"

Cliches, I think, are cultural tags -- they tell you a whole lot in a hurry, which is why they are not very effective in art -- art is inefficient -- it's effectiveness needs time to be truly affective. But you have to know your audience to know who will respond positively to the new and who might see the old in a wholly new light.

I'm interested in the question in part as a plein air painter who works in landscape. Now there's a cliche that's really hard to overcome.

Of course, one can use the familiar to drive the emotional tags -- I think that's a lot of what plein air landscape does. "Oh, I was there when I was a kid and I loved it" -- these paintings act as somewhat personalized postcards or photos for the beholder. Are these cliches? Well, many of them are and some aren't. And the difference may be as much in the beholder as in the maker.

Leave it to me to muddle such a fine post. Thanks, Elizabeth.

Jackie said...

A thoughtful post as usual, but cliches are not cliches because of the subject matter. They are meant to be thus and that's the cliche. There is no subject matter that cannot be redeemed. Images are precious to all of us for different reasons, nothing should be automatically ruled out. There is no prescribed list. I made a huge sunflower but it is in no way like hers except size. I've thought about this for several days and there are cliches and I don't want to make one but subject matter alone does not make a cliche. That's all. I'll keep reading, thinking and commenting, thank you very much for the fodder!

Dee J. said...

Elizabeth, I love your blogs because they are so often thought provoking. As a former English professor, I find verbal cliches killers of fresh insight and vision; however I realize that to the young writer sometimes they seem perfect for expression. I agree however with June that cliche police are sometimes overly zealous in their efforts to curtail the use of cliches both verbally and visually. However, having said all that, if I never see a snowy moonlit night with tree shadows again, I'll be happy.

Kerry said...

You always make me think...and I thank you for that...