HPEF presents Infinitus 2010, a Harry Potter conference            TEXT  MENU

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July 15-18, 2010
Orlando, Florida

Art in Harry Potter / Harry Potter in Art
Karin E. Westman

As readers, we experience and discuss the Harry Potter series as art, but – perhaps surprisingly – Rowling's series offers few examples of imaginative art within the story itself. For Harry and others in the wizarding world, books are not valued for their ability to prompt imaginative engagement. They are a resource for information – sometimes false, sometimes true – and, in that capacity, they hold a certain kind of physical or emotional power which can be beneficial or destructive, but they are not art. Indeed, there is little consideration of art's personal or social role at all in the series, an absence made evident by the screen adaptation of Order of the Phoenix when its director and screenwriter inserted additional business during Umbridge's fascist reign: Filch removing art from the walls of Hogwarts. With this gesture, the film adaptation invests an ideological, imaginative power to art – be it painting, music, or literature – which the novels themselves deny.

In place of seeing art objects at work within the characters' lives, we instead learn about the power of stories and the importance of a sympathetic imagination for the ethical creation of stories. Rowling offers readers this knowledge primarily through Harry's struggles with the dangerous stories others ask or expect him to perform and through his growing skill in shaping stories to his own ends, usually to help others.

Harry learns to tell stories – some true, some not – in order to create opportunities and shape events to his aims; he also learns to recognize when others are doing the same. In Book 6, for instance, Harry senses the narrative designs that rest behind Rufus Scrimgeour's attempts to solicit Harry's assistance at the Ministry, and Harry turns out to be a more formidable opponent to that narrative than Scrimgeour anticipates. Yet the narrative that Harry struggles most to understand and alter across all seven volumes is the one that Voldemort imposes: Voldemort's interpretation of the prophecy, an interpretation that selects Harry as Voldemort's opponent. Second only to the tyranny of Voldemort's narrative is the one that Dumbledore imposes in response, both upon Harry and, on Harry's behalf, upon many others.

Harry's responses to these controlling narratives, such as his self-sacrifice in the forest, are inspired by his moral character, and particularly by an ethical imaginative impulse. As Harry realizes during the “King's Cross” chapter in Deathly Hallows, just because something “is happening inside your head” is no reason to believe “that it is not real” (723). Rowling's novels place power not in the art object, but in that which creates it: the power of the mind, of the imagination, acting for good of others as well as the self. And it is this sympathetic, imaginative impulse which has, perhaps, prompted so many readers become artists and turn Harry Potter into art for a social good.

Karin E. Westman is Associate Professor and Department Head of English at Kansas State University, where she teaches courses in contemporary British literature, including the Harry Potter series. She has presented at four previous conferences on Harry Potter and has reviewed formal programming proposals for two. She has also published on Jane Austen and Rowling and on the outing of Dumbledore. Her book-length study, J.K. ROWLING'S LIBRARY: HARRY POTTER IN CONTEXT (UP of MISSISSIPPI, forthcoming) should appear later this year.
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