QofR: Paratexts continued

Updated: Apr 7, 2021

I started my research by thinking about paratextual theory within literary criticism and took a pause on that idea while I consolidated by knowledge on materiality within visual art. This has kind of derailed my interest in that avenue, but I thought I'd write everything down anyway in case I want to return to it.

Earlier in the year, I had a meeting with Simon Hobbs about his use of paratextual theory within film studies. He explained that within film studies it was a relatively established idea because it's easily applicable. Film are packaged, marketed and circulated in a similar way to books. They involve paratextual elements - titles, credits, cases (DVDs/Videos), posters, interviews, viewing platforms (Netflix, Sky, live TV), critical platforms (IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes etc). These paratexts act as thresholds informing us of their low/high brow status, their genre etc.

It was interesting to consider what counted as a paratext within fine art. We thought about elements such as in a gallery space: the posters/marketing materials, the labelled information, framing types, any barriers/ropes/display cases, security equipment. For example, how does a certain type of label - think slightly raised from the wall, white with black small font (artist name, title, date and medium), matt or silk texture - change our understanding of a work? What does that label tell us beyond the factual information it conveys? Or, can an art gallery act as a paratext? It has a symbolic capital and its own history of controversy or traditionalism that signifies something about a paintings inclusion in its walls.

We also discussed how much agency the artist has over these elements. In some circumstances, an artist may control these paratextual elements during a show, by choosing a particular venue (think Kara Walker's sugar factory), ensuring labelling or display cases are chosen for their symbolic significance rather than their utility.

We also discussed the role of applied art within paratextual theory. Interestingly, Genette cites illustrations as an example of a paratext. They are one of the thresholds to interpreting the text they illustrate. Naturally, not all illustrations are printed neatly next to some text, applied art is a wide-ranging genre that envelops advertising, editorial, sequential illustration, corporate work etc. But this gets at the very distinction between applied and fine art. Does fine art have paratexts, while applied art is the paratext?

These kind of questions make my head spin and seem to be taking me further away from the crux of the question 'How can materiality enhance end user/audience experience?' I think what this research does confirm is that while artists can manipulate the material characteristics of their work to an extent, there will be elements that surround and present the work which cannot be controlled, but do have an impact on our experience of it. I would also argue that visual artists do have more control over 'the experience', as opposed to a film-maker or writer. The dissemination and circulation of visual art is still hugely reliant on in-person encounter and is therefore restricted to areas that can be tightly controlled, while the circulation of films and books is more flexible and accessible.

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