Saturday, November 8, 2008

recipes for interpretation

as mentioned in my previous series of posts, i have been having a very interesting conversation with a friend about my recent installation. more importantly, it has also become a discussion about interpretation and the responsibility of the artist. here is more of the ongoing dialogue (as in the previous posts, his text is italicized and mine is in wine. or burgundy. or alizarin crimson. or whatever colour this is):

It's really interesting for me to hear the response of an artist whose work has so many layers. I often see work [where there seems to be] no link or point. It makes me wonder if there even is a point. i think that sometimes the point is really the artist’s self-expression (the art is about the artist), and not about communication. that kind of work quickly bores me. then there’s art about art, which is often intellectually or conceptually interesting, but sometimes doesn’t have much beyond that. and sometimes the point is so obvious that there isn’t much more to it. and then there is work that is more layered or resonant. Your work is clear that there is a point, it was more an issue of how to interpret it - for me. yes, i do have a point – or rather, points - but the point is not so much a single meaning as it is the activity of interpretation and paying attention to that process. it’s really more about thinking about certain ideas as opposed to “getting” my one specific point.

How do you approach interpreting art? I tend to think that it's important to understand what the artist is trying to communicate so that you can 'hear' what he is saying. well, that is the act of interpretation - "hearing", or rather, listening. gardner has some basic steps for interpretation, which involve working from observation to interpretation. you withhold your opinion until you’ve simply spent time looking at the physical and visual elements of the work and trying to find connections there. we often simply jump right to [our] meaning, and we haven’t really spent time to see what the work is about. in other words, first describe the work: materials, layout, relationships between elements. describe the images, colours, text. think about what they represent symbolically. what are the relationships between those elements? then start to explore whether there are connections or contrasts between those elements and content. that’s where you really start to involve yourself in what the artist is presenting or, more accurately, what the work gives you. after that you can state what you ‘like’ or don’t like, what you think the work is about – but it is then based first on what the artist has done, and then [lastly] what you think. which is, I think, the proper order: work first, viewer/ reader second.

You seem much more flexible in your approach. well -- i do expect the viewer to do the work of looking at the image, interpreting it both culturally and personally, and to find those connections between images and text, between separate elements, and ultimately to themselves and how they see and experience the world. i’d like to think that i’ve given the viewer enough to work with so that they will explore the issues i am interested in. if what you mean by “flexible” is that i give the viewer a lot of power and agency and responsibility to find meaning in the process, then i would agree. if by “flexible” you mean that the viewer can read out of the work whatever they want, i would disagree. i don’t think that option is really available because the work is clearly about specific ideas (which isn’t the same as “points”).

I suppose if the artist has a specific point to communicate, he is responsible to make a clear statement (has he failed then if his work is misinterpreted?), if the artist’s intention is less specific, than the work can be more abstract - more open ended. yes, all aspects of the work (or as much as is possible) should point back to the content. that’s why it’s about more than simply “expression”, or “feelings”. or therapy. This is pretty new to me. People often will misinterpret art regardless, as everyone (or most everyone) sees life through glasses tinted and scratched from their past, so I guess the artist should only be responsible to create the art as true to his vision, and people will see the truth the artist is communicating if they are in a place to accept it. What do you think?

again, i think the artist’s responsibility is to convey their message appropriately. that means they’ve considered: materials, scale, visual elements (such as composition, colour, line), placement of the objects in the space, and the context of the object when it’s released into the world. they should consider their imagery and how it ‘reads’ in their culture and their intended context. if they’ve considered those things, they can be pretty confident that there will be a ‘direction’ to the work, and that the viewer will have a better opportunity to engage with and understand the artist’s intention and the work.

on the other hand, it is the viewer’s responsibility to look at the work and let it reveal what it is about. when looking at the work, you don’t impose your interpretation first – that’s not about the work, that’s about you. the viewer has to take time to look at the work and to let the work “do its thing”. it is crucial that an artist, especially a christian artist, is declaring Truth, and using all the elements to convey the meaning and intent of the work. of course, it does help if the viewer is “in a place to accept” or receive the work. then again, i also think that is more of the emo/ touchy-feely experiential art language that is counter-productive to engaging with the work. looking at art may involve an emotional response (and hopefully it does), but it is more about engaging with ideas, and that means that one can engage with any work regardless. ideally,anyway.


Heather said...

I appreciate this post for several reasons:
- it's not necessarily a "message," but point(s), or I might say, theme(s): this is freeing as both the artist and the interpreter
- A lot of what you say is simple communication theory: both the artist and the interpreter have responsibilities. As artists, we create fresh images/stories/music (etc) of Truth, but they're not pedantic teaching tools, and we cannot treat our interpreters as idiots. And while I think the artist's meaning (and, as you say, social context) is essential to the work, I also believe themes and meanings the artist never intended may arise.
- in order to appreciate art, we must first take it on its terms. While we can't interpret art outside of our cultural lenses (objectively), but recognizing our predispositions, we can hopefully see the themes we project. I know it's easy for me to see my themes in movies, stories, the Bible--and some of that is okay (the idea of the art transcending even the artist's intention), but if I cannot appreciate it first as it is, I'll never be able to see its layers.
Thank you for visiting my blog and for this post on interpretation and the artist's responsibility.

techne said...

i guess simple communication theory = reader-response theory...

i guess i put a lot of responsibility on the artist before the act of making precisely because i think they should provide as many clues as possible to the content and direction of the work. people will always bring their own baggage, but their first task is to engage with the work and explore what is there. one of my favourite quotes is from c.s.lewis:

[When looking at art,] We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)

those unintended themes and meanings may indeed be there, but my suspicion is that they won't be central to the work. at least, not if the artist (or writer or...) has done their work and exercised "due diligence". after all, playing with images is a [potentially] dangerous thing.