memory. language, art. wittgenstein. books. ceramics.

all sorts of thinkings on memory, language, art, wittgenstein, books, etc, while I am getting on with my MA

Sunday 16 May 2010

Can aesthetics of an artwork stop the viewer from reading into the meaning?

We had our mid-point review the other day. The idea is, that a student displays one piece of their work and then he keeps his mouth shut, as others talk about it.

I had my one piece. In fact, I had one part of one piece - mine was only an element from a series. An abstract kind of an element too. As a result, nobody could "read" it.  It was agreed, that the work was aesthetically pleasing, that it encouraged the viewer to return to it, to explore and to discover. Then somebody said, that with some artwork, they are happy not to know the meaning (the intention?). And then came the question:
can aesthetics of an artwork stop the viewer from reading into the meaning?

Hm... Can aesthetics stop the viewer from reading into the meaning?

That brought the whole shitload of questions onto my poor unassuming brain.

1. Do I have to give a clear message?
2. Doesn't that make the artwork the same as a picture book? A dog = a picture of a dog?
3. Isn't straightforward representation of meaning called illustration?
4. Does art have to be "readable" only in it's direct interpretation of intended meaning?

Four days and four nights I did not sleep. Until I came a cross this blog entry from Jonathan Jones, called Explanations are the traitor of art.
If an artist can translate the meaning and purpose of a work into easily understandable words, it means one of two things. Either the artist is lying, in order to ease the way with patrons and funders; or the artist is a fool. And if dishonesty is the reason, that too is something that vitiates art. No serious art is easy to interpret. Nor is there ever a single valid interpretation of art. If art is good, there are many things to be said about it and much that will remain unsayable.
That blog led me onto this article in the Independent called Is art running out of ideas? Artist's forced to explain modern art by Tom Lubbock.

What we're up against here are two of contemporary art's guiding imperatives. Rule 1) Justification by meaning: the worth and interest of a work resides in what it's about. Rule 2) Absolute freedom of interpretation: a work is "about" anything that can, at a pinch, be said about it.


That's the problem with these meanings. They're not just highly tenuous. They're depressingly limiting. And we should put them aside. We should stop measuring art by its meaningfulness. We should heed the wise words of Susan Sontag, written almost 50 years ago in her essay "Against Interpretation".
"Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back on content so that we can see the thing at all. The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and, by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us."

And then Wittgenstein - of course :-) - came extremely handy too. "What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence" (from his Tractatus). I suppose art comes into the category of those things, with which language is incapable of dealing very well. Like any other kind of philosophy. To be continued.

Anyway, I can sleep now. I am getting somewhere.

I might have to read that Susan Sontag's book "Against Interpretation".