The Most Basic Aesthetic Principle

by F.

Last night I watched one of my new favorite films again—The Squid and the Whale. Afterwards, still wanting more, I took the time to explore the special features, one of which was an interview of the writer-director, Noah Baumbach, by writer Phillip Lopate. In the interview, Lopate remarks on some of the aesthetic contrasts in the film, such as having beautiful shots of trees and other bits of Park Slope in scenes of tremendous interpersonal ugliness. This illustrates a principle I ran across, which could be stated like this:

  • the audience's emotional reaction to an artwork is strongly influenced by contrast and affinity between design elements.

I came across this idea in a book called The Visual Story, by Bruce Block, which is a concise summary of almost every major work on art and visual perception. I kid you not. And the book is short. And fun to read. It kicks ass.

These two concepts—contrast and affinity—are opposites: to the extent there is greater contrast between A and B, there is less affinity between A and B. What kinds of things are A and B? Anything that can have a design property such as tone, color, or line.

So, for instance, a white dog viewed against a pile of coal creates high contrast. A black dog in the snow does the same. On the other hand, a black dog against a coal pile has high affinity, as does an albino dog in the snow. You get the idea.

Well, this idea is a mere "gee whiz" curiosity unless it has some use for the artist. The use flows from the fact that contrast creates excitement in the audience, generally speaking. It makes the viewing experience more intense. Visuals with high affinity are sedate. Those with high contrast are exciting.

Interestingly, I think this notion of contrast and affinity applies to any art form—music, writing, dance, whatever. Contrast and affinity can be created with almost any element of an art form. For instance, take tempo in music. If a piece of music alternates between fast and slow tempo quickly, there is a high degree of contrast, which I think will get the audience's attention. Same with pitch. Similarly in writing. For instance, a writer might have a few long paragraphs and then, for contrast, might do something different.

Like have a one sentence paragraph.

In films, there are so many elements that can be contrasted, it's almost overwhelming. There are dramatic elements as well as visual elements, and there are verbal elements, too. In The Visual Story, block sets out the basic visual components, which are

  • space
  • line and shape
  • tone
  • color
  • movement and
  • rhythm

Each of these have various sub-elements. In the book Story, Robert McKee discusses a similar idea regarding dramaturgy. He mentions creating contrast in terms of scene length, "charge" (i.e., whether the scene helps or hinders the protagonist's attempt to get what he wants), and some other elements.

I don't know enough about composing music to know whether this idea has been discussed in that domain, but I suspect it has.