Genres, authenticity, technology and constraints

I have not read any literature about genre theory or anything closely related to the following spiel, but these are my thoughts and wonders. I am sure they are muddled and confused and not clear but it seems worth thinking about.

I don’t think I’m a fan of genres, or of works that adhere strictly to genres. To me, genre seems like a synonym for constraint, and I think constraints are unnecessary and unhelpful when working on and creating anything. Genres and movements allow the use of certain devices and only certain devices to deliver content. They are meant to allow expression through these devices. However, by limiting the available devices you can use you are constraining yourself. I have spoken to people who think these constraints are good, that they may even be necessary to allow any expression at all (for how could you even begin to express yourself with everything in the universe available to you? There is nowhere to start…) I can sympathise a little with this view, as sometimes constraints can be helpful (and challenging) in giving you guidelines as to how to do something.

However, it seems ridiculous to me to voluntarily adhere to (arbitrary) constraints, where we could have none. As an example, you wouldn’t ask an illustrator to produce something good only using one pen, or a writer to only use twenty words, or a filmmaker to not use a tripod (unless you’re Lars von Trier). In general, it seems better to allow the artist any means available to them to create what they want, and this includes enforcing no practical or theoretical limits on their work. To do so, to adhere to genres, seems to be unnecessarily limiting the artist’s expression, or ease of creating what they want.

As technology develops we have less physical barriers to achieving the results we want. Digital software is making it easier to do exactly what you want with any form of art – Photoshop, After Effects, Logic, etc are incredibly powerful pieces of software, and allow creations that were impossible a while ago. I see no reason to eschew these possibilities in favour of ‘authentic’ acoustic or analogue means of production, as some people would. There is nothing authentic, or natural, about the sound of a trumpet, or guitar, if you are to claim digital media (e.g. synthesised sounds) is inauthentic. These acoustic instruments are not natural. They are instruments – tools made by humans for achieving something we could not produce without them (certain sounds), or with far less effort. Instruments/tools in the same way the laptop is an instrument/tool.

–I have a nasty feeling that here I am 1. arguing against no-one, 2. equivocating between physical constraints and cultural constraints. But I’m gonna leave it.

Maybe the last paragraph is trying to quell my unease about digital photography seeming ‘wrong’ or too easy in some way. For I think the boundary between analogue, ‘authentic’ photography and digital, ‘inauthentic’ photography is false. I have a mode on my dslr (sony a55, it’s good) that produces images in high contrast black and white. I like the results, but it somehow feels wrong, or false. Furthermore any photos I modify at all (on photoshop or otherwise) stop feeling like ‘true’ photos. But then I try and remind myself that these methods of digital manipulation are simply tools to make something easier. And that if I were to use a ‘real’ slr, I could use black and white film, and it would have the same effect. In short, the boundary between real photos and digital (and digitally manipulated) photos is false, as none of them are natural.


Nowadays (what a great word) we have less and less constraints, almost to the point where anything is possible and achievable. I believe we should revel in this, and do whatever the fuck we want with what we’ve got. For we have been doing that as long as we have been able through whatever instruments we’ve had available to us, consciously or unconsciously. No need for genres now. It’s just a shame that business in the arts world seems to work around genres.


3 thoughts on “Genres, authenticity, technology and constraints

  1. Does business in the arts world really work around genres? To a limiting extent?
    In the Big Business commercial sector yes you have must-read thrillers advertised at trainstations, Mills and Boon, films like The Hangover and detective TV shows, and it is more than a fact that there are certain formats for presenting things or putting a story together which yield the most happy customers. But in smaller scale projects there’s much more acceptance of the thing on its own merits- music videos don’t have many genres*, and can showcase some unconventional or cutting edge methods of production- stuff rarely used outside of art studios, film labs, CGI bunkers, etc.

    I think new technology is quite commonly embraced and celebrated for the reasons you mentioned, (ease, freedom, thrill of the new), and old technologies periodically revived to be used in new ways. There will always be people who prefer things to be done in a certain traditional way, and they may give the impression that this is because their methods are the true, authentic methods of production (they’re called purists as if they favour the pure). But their methods were shockingly new once, and even if they feel superior they get an equal amount of heckling and trouble (and some respect) for their satisfying bathtub-developed super-expensive, delicate and vulnerable 8mm efforts.


    ~Everything changes, but not all at once. Technology may unearth another world and it could be a few years before anyone thinks to explore it, and exploit its resources.
    ~Some people like formulaic media, some like things done a certain way- that doesn’t impose constraints on anyone who doesn’t want to go along with it though.
    ~Constraints can be fun, and if they’re arbitrary they can be done away with if they become too limiting.

    *there are some broad categories of music video, but again a lot of that is in the commercial music-for-mass-money sector.

    • Thanks for the comment – interesting thoughts.

      I definitely agree with your final point; constraints can be fun and useful, and indeed can be disregarded if they are limiting your ability to create exactly what you want. However, from my (limited) experience of the arts industries (or at least the film, television and documentary industries), staying within genres seems to be pretty essential in order to get funding or distribution. Admittedly, there are works that don’t adhere to standard genres, and which are occasionally quite successful. However, these are few and far between, and most producers and distributers won’t consider works which aren’t within standard genres with clear demographics, tested and proven-to-make-money. It is risky to back something unusual and not formulaic, and for most of the industry, it seems, often too risky, meaning producers won’t back something which is in a ‘safe’ format.

      As I am willing to admit, however, I haven’t had that much experience pitching to producers within traditional channels of media production and distribution (for example television) and could be mistaken. I think that one of the reasons I haven’t had to do so yet is because technology has developed to such an extent that we no longer need to go through these traditional channels, and such developments (digital distribution, for example) seem to make it easier for independents to actually produce and try and sell the works they want, without compromise. Hopefully, as the game changes, we will manage to find new methods of distribution, new ways of targeting niche audiences who would appreciate non-formulaic works. What an exciting time! It’s all uncertain and I guess that’s part of the fun. Abandoning the ship of classic media management, crawling on to the chancy rafts of self-publication.

      That sounds a little wanky but it’s okay.

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