True Art Is Complex

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"Some people demand a five-line capsule summary. Something you'd read in a magazine. They want you to say, "This is the story of the duality of man and the duplicity of governments." I hear people try to do it — give the five-line summary — but if a film has any substance or subtlety, whatever you say is never complete, it's usually wrong, and it's necessarily simplistic: truth is too multifaceted to be contained in a five-line summary. If the work is good, what you say about it is usually irrelevant."

So you're looking at the TV listings for this week, and two new shows are premiering. The first is a simple Slice of Life sitcom about several twentysomethings sharing an apartment and trying to find jobs and dates - it's light, accessible, witty and uses no plot structure more intellectually demanding than Two Lines, No Waiting. The second is an espionage thriller featuring Loads and Loads of Characters each of which have involved and varied backstories, complicated plots and sub-plots employing In Medias Res and Anachronic Order which intersect in surprising ways, and rapid-fire dialogue making liberal use of Viewers Are Geniuses-type literary and historical references which will fly over the heads of most casual watchers (hell, the show seems specifically designed to discourage casual watchers).

Pretty soon, the first show has found a large audience, while the second has only a small but devoted fanbase - but the second show is a critical darling, with reviewers praising it to high heaven for how complex and involved it is, even while acknowledging that it can be rather difficult to follow even if one watches every episode and keeps detailed notes on each character.

Now, obviously, there's nothing wrong with complex works. Many people enjoy shows like the thriller described above for the intellectual stimulation they provide, and can be ripe fruit for discussion and theorizing. Conversely, many people enjoy simple works because they are precisely that -- simple, accessible and straightforward. This trope is about the idea that a complex work is inherently better than a simple work, even if things such as accessibility and emotional power are lost in the process. In music criticism, it is particularly obvious, with classical music aficionados dismissing popular music as simplistic and unrefined, or popular music critics (particularly in the sphere of metal or experimental music) praising the technical skill of a group's instrumentalists and their elaborate compositions, irrespective of the actual musical quality of said compositions.

Note that this trope is not interchangeable with True Art Is Incomprehensible (although there may be overlap between the two): it's entirely possible to make a complicated work without sacrificing comprehensibility, and vice versa. For example, the play Waiting for Godot has only five characters, a simple two-act structure making use of a single minimal setting, and an ostensibly quite crude plot (two men wait for a third man to arrive, who never does so): and yet academics have been debating what it actually means for decades. On the other hand, the film L.A. Confidential has numerous characters and sub-plots and is unusually long for a thriller, but ultimately tells a reasonably straightforward story about corruption of public figures, the difference between the letter and the spirit of the law and so on.

Sub-Trope of True Art. See all the other True Art subtropes (especially True Art Is Incomprehensible), Kudzu Plot, Epic Rocking and Better on DVD. Contrast Minimalism and Three Chords and the Truth (especially for musical examples). Compare Rube Goldberg Device for other cases where complexity is seen as a virtue in itself.

Examples of True Art Is Complex include:

In-Universe examples[edit | hide | hide all]

Literature[edit | hide]

Live-Action Television[edit | hide]

  • In Frasier, the eponymous psychiatrist does this when he makes a theme song for his show. Subverted as it fails as a theme song, as even the orchestra he hired preferred the jingle his dad came up with.

Real Life examples[edit | hide]

Anime and Manga[edit | hide]

Film[edit | hide]

  • Inception, hailed by some for its complex storyline, lampooned by others for the exact same reason (or alternatively, lampooned for not having a complex storyline). Other Christopher Nolan films (especially Memento) get a lot of this as well.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • The book Everything Bad is Good For You, in its section on television, uses this trope as its argument that viewers are not morons and that TV is far less brain-rotting than it used to be, citing the cognitive leaps needed to follow 24 (2001-2010) are larger than those needed for Hill Street Blues (1981-1987), which in turn are larger than those needed to follow Starsky and Hutch (1975-1979). While it doesn't argue that any one of these shows has more artistic integrity than the other, the implications of general superiority are the driving force of the book's message.

Music[edit | hide]

  • In the early 90s a style of electronic music emerged featuring experimental production, stuttering, offbeat rhythms and a generally iconoclastic approach to the traditional conventions of dance music at the time. Critics started referring to this style as "intelligent dance music" or "IDM". The term faced backlash almost immediately, including from several IDM artists themselves, for its tacit implication that all non-IDM dance artists were therefore producing "stupid" dance music.
  • Endemic in the Fan Dumbs for any sufficiently experimental or technically demanding genre of music.

Software[edit | hide]

Video Games[edit | hide]