How to rewrite storytelling in the 21st Century — part II
Welcome to the coming of age of storytelling, which to address the dire situation we find ourselves in requires a redefinition and repositioning of story as engineering in an era of disinformation and dereliction, digital and diversity.
If you’ve not read part one, I would encourage you to read here to give context to new storytelling. Some of this thinking is captured in various academic books that reference my work.
To understand how to storytell-as-engineers to address the big crisis or our day, I could pick several aides, but I’m going to take you back to this front cover image above and a truncated narrative of this figure.
This is the famous oil painting of Napoleon Bonaparte created by the French artist Jacques-Louis David between 1801 and 1805. Bonaparte, with the French Revolutionary wars behind him, is heading a campaign to recapture land taken by Austrian forces in Italy.
To do so in 1800 he must lead his reserve Army over the Alps through the daunting Great St Bernard Pass in Switzerland. Other notable generals Hannibal and Charlemagne have traversed this path; their names are carved in stone in the painting. No words are needed to influence your perception of a sturdy Napoleon leading his troops. Except it’s one big massive fake.
Bonaparte did not lead his men. He did not do so by a thoroughbred stead, but a mule, and a peasant led the way. Bonaparte would have been a wily practitioner in modern media, a bling bling “influencer” sating his personal brand.
A nostalgic image of the past, so? Perhaps an image of today gives some context.
But there’s something equally deeply engaging that brings us back into the realms of storytelling and news. For back in the 1800 in the absence of photography and film, painters where the visual journalists of their day.
And French painter Jacques-Louis David, an innovator, was venerated as the leading painter in France of the Neo-classical movement. In Art: The definitive Visual Guide edited by Andrew Graham-Dixon, we learn that
Neoclassicism was the dominant style of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. In its purest form, Neoclassical art is severe and high minded — often linked with fervent political ideas of the time — but it also has more intimate and decorative aspects.
David, Antoine-Jean Gross, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres were some of its notable apostles.
Like many a movements before and after these storytellers, their innovation depended on the right condition, socially, politically and economically, for acceptance. But by whom and how have we become to associate the nostalgia of art with the current conditions? And where does Ros’s image “My thoughts too” ( read here pt 1) fit into a redefining of storytellers-as-engineers.
To say Art, as one of the fundamental visual schemas for interpreting life was the preserve of the elites is an understatement. It’s still considered today, through what the late scholar John Berger called its religiosity.
The public would not have seen David’s masterpiece in the 1800s. it was meant for the ruling classes and a way of seeing built on assumptions of wealth, splendour, truth, form, status, exposition, lighting techniques that the French public may not have considered.
Like the modern day music industry there were superstar Artists but many struggled to make ends meet, for instance, Dutch painter Frans Hal (1582–1666) In time Artists would develop ways of elevating themselves through dress codes and dandyism.
The way often a piece of art is viewed today embraces mystification and not reality. Patrons of Art back in the 1800s would recognise their own hyperbole. They were speaking to one another. It would be the modern day equivalent of a reporter reading a rival’s work and chuckling at its excesses.
Take Leonardo Da Vinci’s master piece Mona Lisa. Widely acknowledged by the establishment but it would take an event, a criminal act (social) that would lead it to world wide fame and prominence amongst the public. It was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 by a petty thief. Enemies of traditional art were first blamed including (gasp) Picasso.
The late 1800s to 1900 great social forces were emerging: more voting rights, social equality, attacks against the ruling classes, consciousness of individuality. Technology e.g. camera and film was lowering the barrier for experiencing, and masses of people were being engaged with various forms of art. By 1900 the way was paved for a different type of art movement which would yield impressionism, cubism and surrealism. By 1900s the wheels were about to fall off for the academy that controlled Art. Their days are numbered.
Within this last paragraph is the parallels of today. In his brilliant book Ways of Seeing by John Berger, we learn about the devaluing of Art by reproduction. How the coding of an image is less what the artist is expressing, but more about how the viewer interprets is through what they believe or know through their own social, economic and political lens. The new social bubble of the 21st century. Ergo, the Prime Minister’s Top Gun attire.
Institutions still venerate and put on public exhibitions of art, but the paradigm shift is in how you can own a Mona Lisa T-shirt. How a description, provenance, provides value to the product with a back story, and hence how classical storytelling fails to impact as it once did.
Just as Ros can capture a breathtaking photo, she and her generation born into a world of video, and realising their own values, see past institution’s ( the Academy’s) video news who work explicitly or implicitly within the margins of David’s Napoleon. Ros can shoot video, make TikToks, which like the Impressionisms’ opening up of Art, re-values her relationship with institutional forms.
Modern universities largely reinforce the status quo. TV News may be critiqued, but it’s still the domain fashioned in the 1950s that’s still entertained. Have you ever wondered how the tenants of news making rarely prefigures race and culture as conditional to news making? How are universities and academies faced with the existential crisis of climate, food poverty, democracy under threat educating the next generation to solve these problems?
Storytelling has its place as information, but as a 21st century Neo Storytelling it should continuously strive to transcend beyond the narrow, but purposeful confines it’s emerged from. Here’s Ross photo again. By itself it possibly impacted you. You might have even thought it was a catalogue photo. So the provenance, how it came to be, helps situate it; that is the drama of the night. But “seeing comes before words. The Child looks and recognises before it can speak”, cited in Ways of Seeing.
This leads me to two thoughts that I will posit here as my third outing of a major innovation. It’s a continuum from of two, but builds more explicitly taking into consideration the social conditions we’ve entered.
Firstly comes social storytellers who build products as an answer to social problems. When colleagues and I wanted to reports on racial injustice, I was given the opportunity to report inside Breaking the News: 500 Years of News in Britain, by the British Library. It describes language and BLM’s movement.
The exhibition in which I was an advisory board member is on at the British Library until August 22nd 2022. However this, a remake of A Great Day in Harlem was the build, the transcendent. I lecture in this dual Neo storytelling form, particularly towards creating start-ups that address social issues.
Secondly, just as Art went through movements, there is one that has become my life’s quest, built on the foundation of a group of artists, which Mark Cousins a leading award winning filmmaker and author expressed here.
Then there’s the journey men and women of the 1960s. The greatest innovation to news that underpins a freedom from traditional structure is TikTok. Inspired by the great Robert Drew, I’ve sought to build on his brand of cinema verite by calling it Cinema Journalism. It’s lived with me for many years and became the subject of my PhD and I’ve come to know a select number of people who can perform this, such as the BBC’s Clive Myrie.
The greatest visual narrative art form that pulls Ros and millions to pay good money is cinema. What if we could master this to create stories of impact, to address existential crisis that we face? Cause and effect! I don’t seek to be injured again on holiday. Actually I’d like to sat in that pool again gazing outwards at nature’s cinema for a long time.
I write about innovation which has led to @Medium referring to me as one of their top writers in journalism from 26K writers. You can find more about me here @linkedin. Below a visual mind map of what I do and collaborate o: