Narrativity in art


Marie-Laure Ryan beautifully summarizes narrativity as the “ability to bring a world to life” (Ryan cited in Abbott 2008, 25). Considering this quality, the concept can clearly be applied to art. But which of the arts provide a suitable medium for stories? Controversially, all of them. While narrativity in art is a topic that bears endless discussions, I would like to point out from the start that, in my opinion and gazing to Ryan’s previous words, even the poetic nature of art itself should be considered its narrativity. To put it in simple words, I believe that art tells us something and, even when it is not a story, the sum of all the qualities by which art communicates can be thought of as narrativity.


Art is generally considered a form of communication, therefore the linguistic theories should provide some information about narrative in art. But if narrative in art can be easily questionable by making a parallel to linguistics, the debate about narrativity in visual and performing arts remains open. Wolf Schmid (2003) informs us that, whereas the classical narratology limited the term of narrativity to works that include a “narrating authority” (ibid.), the newer structuralist concept embraces any medium, with the condition of a change in the temporal structure. This is a vital assertion for music and dance, because it defends their capability of having narrativity through other means than words, but visual arts cannot subscribe to this, as they are primarily synchronic. Nevertheless, through the power of imagery, visual arts have the ability to simulate narration.


So what contributes to the narrativity of an artwork? Since each art has its own characteristics and processes of communication, it would be a difficult task to find mutual categories of qualities that allude narrativity. But even in case of non-narrative art it is still not impossible to think about their narrativeness in relation to the viewer. An abstract painting of Pollock or Mondrian clearly was not meant to be narrative, but an art critic could tell you a story about the colours, shapes and intentions of the painter. Two statements can be drawn from this:

1. it is frequently less important what (or even if) an artwork narrates, but how it does it, thus the process of making the artwork itself becomes narrative;
2. the narrativity of an abstract artwork is dependent on its viewer interpretation.

Of course, my hypothesis about the narrativity of abstract art could be considered a speculation, since it cannot be universally applied. Then again, art is highly subjective, so evaluating its narrativeness is accordingly subjective.


Since narrative is intrinsic to literature, as well as to drama and cinematography, I will omit the discussion about them and focus further on visual arts and music.


back to top