Reply to "Between You and Me"

Fawzan sent this to comment on Neda's last post, and I've decided that it needed to be posted here instead. Yaay, we've got ourselves a new discussion going - care to join in? - Rima

"I regret very much that I have painted a picture
that requires any description" - W. Homer

(This post by Fawzan)

Modern society seems to always be looking for the Cliffs-notes version of everything, with the "You-Name-It For Dummies" series leading the trend. We want our news in 20 minutes or less, our novels translated into 1 1/2 hr movies and someone else to tell us what art “means” to us. DVD versions of movies now come with a running commentary track where the director can tell you what he was thinking and what he was trying to do when he shot every scene.

As a society, we want to be spoon-fed all forms of art. We refuse to expand the effort to understand it and in the process we loose so much.

(Artwork by Fadi Barrage, 1940-1988)

When asked for a few descriptive lines about one of his paintings, Winslow Homer once said: "I regret very much that I have painted a picture that requires any description." Kind of says it all, doesn't it? An artist pours his/her soul into a work. He/She uses the language of colours or notes or texture and form to express/create something. Then someone looks at it and says: “I don't have time to try and understand your language, tell it to me in another language (mine)”.

Aside from the disappointing and almost insulting angle to the question "What does your art mean?", there is also a dangerous path taken as well. When people discuss art, be they renowned critics or average viewers, they are engaging in an interpretive discourse. At the end of the dialogue, they have convinced each other of their view-points or retained their disparate views.

It is this dynamic of the artwork transforming into an object to be “owned” by the viewer that is its true value. If an artist mistakenly weighs in to the dialogue, the dynamic dies. Once the artist tells the viewer what the art piece is about, why he created it, what he was trying to do and what it means, the viewer has no more interpretive engagement with the art. The viewer can either confirm the artist's statement, or disagree with it, but can you really tell someone: "No, that is not what you meant to do, I know better"?

I have often wondered, after the fact of course, what my response should have been to the question of “What does it mean?”. Next time, I’ll just have to say: “ I have no idea. Your guess is as good as mine."

http://artezan.blogspot.com/ http://fawatercolour.50g.com/


Neda said...

I fully agree with you: we need to rediscover the meaning of true creativity by steering away from ready-made one-size-fits-all "critical" thinking. However, I would like you to clarify the position of the artist in all this. On the one hand, I would like my artwork to be fully experienced by the viewer and interpreted by him/her. On the other hand, I would like to still retain "my voice" in the matter. It is true, we are offering our art for the taking, but I am not sure if we are advocating complete "surrender" of authorship... Can you please elaborate?

Debi Cates said...

I'll play devil's advocate and speak for the "dummies" (it should be quite easy for me).

I think sometimes when a person asks about art, they merely want to know more. True, it's likely they already have their opinion -- and even a beginning inkling of a meaning for them -- but maybe something is preventing them from "getting" it. Or maybe they want to "get" more of it. The heart is willing, but the mind falters.

For example, I'm thinking back to my college Art Appreciation days and Picasso's Guernica. Just seeing it I didn't get it. I felt things, but I was confused by what I felt, and why it was important. Of course, reading the back story on the piece, and even the title itself gave me the clues I needed to open myself up more to appreciation of the work.

But some art defies even a simple explanation. I feel that when I think of Miro, who's work simply delights me, and gives me great joy getting lost in the lines and dots and odd squigglies. I guess some art goes down to a subconscious level and thus wrangles wildly free from conventional explanation.

No matter what kind of art, a Cliff Notes version (or even a snobby Art Critic essay) of understanding never plumbs the depth or is a substitute for the experience of any work. Your point is well-taken, Fawzan, it comes down to viewing it, and being bold and invested enough to allow your own feelings.

Rima said...

Hey, Debi - I used your comment in the rest of the discussion (see post dated 8.4.07) - thanks!