Discovering Art – in a Context
Part 2 of 6
I took a snapshot of the art population. But when you see artists, where are they? Artists are in a context. Context is a pregnant term, and I will use it broadly as the time and place, the world, the situation within which the artist creates. I want you to appreciate the context when interacting with art. Ignoring it hinders our understanding of the artist and their work. For example, you see a rabbit hopping across a green pasture. “What a spring-happy rascal!” you say. Then you hear crack…bang. Looking over, you discover a pair of horsemen, holding guns. Now you think, “this terrified animal is going to die.” You assumed the context was a peaceful countryside; you discovered it was an afternoon hunt. So a bounding bunny became a terrified rabbit. We accounted for the situation, and it altered our understanding of the rabbit.
How does this apply to art? H.G. Wells and Steven Spielberg will prove the importance of context in the art world. Let’s consider War of the Worlds, the novel by H.G. Wells (1898) and the film directed by Steven Spielberg (2005). I will highlight two changes that Spielberg made and demonstrate how the context makes sense of each. This should illuminate both the novel and the film.
Terror ravages Wells’ novel. The narrator uses the term 21 times, usually like this: Looking at a Martian space capsule, “terror gripped me.” Later, he grips boat paddles that become “infected with his terror.” And describes Martian heat lasers as “invisible terrors.” For Wells, terror is a horrific force generated by the Martians. When I saw the film, I noticed that “terror” was used in a different way. No narrator chanted, “Terror. Terror.” Nor did Spielberg interrupt the movie with, “I hope you’re terrified.” But, the term was voiced. At least three times Tom Cruise’s son blurts out, “Are these terrorists!?” This never occurs in the novel, so how should we explain the difference? Let’s consider the context. The film was released in 2005. What happened four years prior? The September 11th attacks. The event occupied every American mind and fostered worry of another attack. So the boy’s question, “Are these terrorists!?”, acutely expressed the concern of many Americans in 2005. The film verbalized the fear of its viewers.
Spielberg also changes the protagonist. In the novel, Wells tells of a nameless journalist writing an ethics paper. He is a married man, friend of professors and financially stable. In the film, Tom Cruise operates a shipyard crane, resents his remarried wife and lives under the interstate. A married philosopher becomes a divorced crane operator. Why? Again, consider the context. Who do you find in the cinema? In the U.S., the average 2005 moviegoer can probably change oil and straighten out their punk kid. They do not write science reviews or talk history with their professor friends. They see Tom Cruise on hard times and say, “That’s my life.”
Contrasts between the War of the Worlds in 1898 and the War of the Worlds in 2005 are apparent. Spielberg created in a different time and place than H.G. Wells, and we accounted for it. Remember “context clues” from elementary school? If we did not understand a word, teachers told us to read through the page and find clues. By considering the surrounding evidence, we postulated the meaning of a word. We accounted for the literary situation. That is all we have done – acted like thoughtful fifth graders. We studied Spielberg’s audience, events and location, and this illuminated his artwork.
Artists create in a context. If we ignore it, we hinder our understanding; if we appreciate it, we may discover new things. But is studying the context too much work? If it overwhelms you or puts you off, I empathize. History, sociology, philosophy, it is a labor, and sometimes we need to disregard it. If the work cripples your wonder, take a break. Push pause on your study and set it down. Wander a medieval castle – don’t worry about when it was built, the architect or the historical events – just stand on the cold stones and revel at its might. But, if you wish to better understand art, I think you must consider the context in which it is created.
Postscript: If the Martians in 1898 weren’t September 11th “terrorists,” then who were they?
We discovered the “terror” of Spielberg’s film, but what about Wells’ novel? Axis powers weren’t raiding Britain in 1898, not yet at least, so how do we make sense of his Martians? What was happening in H.G. Wells’ world? Over the 18th century, Europe cultivated their might. They developed a technology, a military and a philosophy unequalled in the world. These enabled them to occupy most of the globe during the 19th century. Over 100 years, France, Britain, Portugal and Spain colonized Africa, Asia and the Americas. They imposed their system of life on foreign “barbarians,” whom they conquered with ease. At the end of the century, when H.G. Wells wrote his novel, the British Empire dominated. They were the vanguard of European colonizers.
Wells’ Martians are an “advanced” species. They have superior technology, military power and mental ability. Sweeping London, they kill and capture the English amidst meager resistance. Who are the Martians? They sound like British colonialists. But why would Wells parallel enemy Martians with his home nation? And why are they defeated at the end of the story? Let’s consider his words from 1919. He writes of 18th and 19th century Imperial regimes,
“Tremendously as these phantoms, the Powers, rule our minds and lives today, they are, as this history shows clearly, things only of the last few centuries, a mere hour, an incidental phase, in the vast deliberate history of our kind…[modern men] still talk loudly of their ‘love’ for France, of their ‘hatred’ of Germany, of the ‘traditional ascendance of Britain at sea,’ and so on and so on, like those who sing of their cups in spite of the steadfast onset of sobriety and a headache.” – Outline of History, VIII:34 §8
Wells disfavors the nationalist confidence of his contemporaries. For him, Britain’s supremacy is temporary, and the rapid success and final defeat of the Martians illustrates this. It seems Wells was not speculating about the invasion of aliens; he was prophesying against Imperialist Britain.
As for his protagonist, why did Wells use a scientific journalist? Why not write about a local ship-builder or London policeman? Wells’ characters are rarely common men. I have only read The Time Machine, The Invisible Man and The Island of Dr. Moreau, but in each, his main character is a sort of scientist-philosopher-educator whose worldview trumps his foe’s. They resemble what I know of H.G. Wells the man. Beyond this, I have little knowledge, and only speculate.