Monday, January 2, 2012

What Is Art? & Is Interpretation Possible?

Andrew Wyeth, Long Limb, Tempera, 1999. Is is art?
On December 30, in the post for Blitzchess & Chaos: Sherlock Holmes A Game Of Shadows, a reader named Trish kindly challenged my interpretation of Sherlock Holmes' orange scarf and whether or not interpretation is possible at all. After making numerous attempts to answer her question, I decided I needed to address her concern more thoroughly as it is fundamental to academia, life and even this blog. 
Andrew Wyeth, Late Fall, watercolor on paper, 1981. This wonderful water color means something, however, if we don['t engage it, it's reduced to the status of the decorative, and neither the art nor the viewer benefits.
My mother has asked many times, "Do you really think artists and screenwriters sit down and plan all those things" I discuss in my posts; yes and no. A musician, poet, painter, film makers (at any stage in the process) architect, actors and playwrights, photographers, etc., work on their work, they do drafts and make changes, they build up and destroy, experiment, and discard; the process of producing a work of art reflects a series of decisions made by an artist to communicate to an audience via the tools at their disposal (musical notes, words, paint, celluloid). To communicate, the artist uses a language the audience will understand; while the artist is conscious and articulate about some of the decisions they make, they do not have to understand exactly why they arrange something in a certain way, only that they know it should be that way, and that it is part of their message to their audience and then it is up to the audience to accept the challenge of coming to an understanding.
Richard Hamilton, collage, Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? 1956, generally sited as the earliest work of the "pop art" movement.
 At some point in the creative process, the artist says, "I'm done, this is it, this is the complete statement I sought to achieve by producing this piece," and they show it to someone, they play it to someone, they read it to someone and they want to know how they like it. This process allows us to define what art is: Art is information presented by a person(s) that habitually displays work for an audience to engage.
Still Life With Glass Flask and Fruit, Chardin, circa 1750.
I have a degree in philosophy, I know there are holes in this, but I am confident that it presents us with a working model suitable for our discussion. For example, if Jane Doe takes photos of her dog and puts them on Facebook for her friends to "like," is that art? No. Photography is an art medium; Facebook is a place where things are displayed and people "liking" and commenting on Jane's dog photo is (a form of) engagement; however, Jane's dog photo doesn't qualify under "work": Jane is not occupied with taking photos of her dog, rather, it's a leisure, social or even familial activity, not a "work."
Woman V, Willem de Kooning, 1952-2, Australia.
A gray region is that which approaches the description of the "artistic," but isn't necessarily art. My sister has become a very good photographer and she works, consciously, at taking photographs which she intuitively feels makes a statement rather than just documenting. Is is art? No. While many of her photographs approach the "artistic" in quality, she limits photographing to special occasions and vacations, neither does she display her photos. However, if she habitually took a camera with her and occupied herself with photographing (and displayed for an audience to engage with them) yes, her photos would transcend the "artistic" to art.
Le Grand Odalisque, JAD Ingres, 1814, the Louvre, Paris.
Another gray region: Aesthetics.
I've taken two graduate courses on aesthetics, one taught by a logician in Philosophy and the other by an art instructor and both were excruciatingly painful. The reason it's such a difficult field is that it presents more problems than answers.
One of the most controversial art works ever produced: Piss Christ by Andres Serrano, 1987. This photograph is of a plastic Crucifix submerged in urine. Christians have angry reactions to the piece and Sister Wendy, a nun who practices art criticism, has said, "It's not a very good piece." I have to disagree, I think it's an excellent piece: this is exactly how those of us who call ourselves Christians treat Christ when we sin and fail to live up to what we preach; this is a great picture of hypocrisy for all of us, because it accurately reflects the "plasticity" of Christian values when we want to bend Christ's commands to accommodate our sins and we fail to mold ourselves to Him, molding Him to ourselves instead.
One of the many times the National Endowment for the Arts was having problems obtaining funds occurred when Piss Christ won a competition funded by the NEA. On top of offending many Americans, it compelled most people to decry that it wasn't even art. This historical occurrence accentuates the dilemma of something being a question of "aesthetic pleasure" rather than art. To put it simply, aesthetics concerns the subjective in art, while art history (as an academic discipline) concerns the objective in art.
Arizona Cow-boy, Frederic Remington, lithograph, 1901.
My father and I were in an art museum. He pointed to a Remington (such as the one pictured above) of Cowboys on a plain and said, "That is art," then pointed to an abstract, hand-blown glass sculpture and said, "That's not art." After asking him a few questions, I deduced that the glass-medium wasn't a question of craftsmanship for dad (he acknowledged that it is art, after all) but it brought back memories of glass decorations in an un-liked relative's house when he was growing up, so he didn't like it; the cowboy painting reminded him of pleasant hours spent with his grandfather. His response to both pieces was emotional and psychological (subjective) rather than any analysis he wanted to offer (objective). Providing you with an analytic perspective (free of personal memories or responses based on "inner" phenomena, rather than exterior phenomena available for all to experience) is what I attempt to do for readers at this site.
Bound Slave, unfinished marble sculpture, Michelangelo.
However, art will frequently aim itself at an aesthetic experience or try to stimulate a more objective response from its audience. War Horse and Hugo are two prime examples of art invoking emotional responses which complicates attempts at analytic examinations (it intentionally targets the individual's emotions). Films such as Margin Call or In Time want to pull you out of your subjective/emotional state and introduce you to a new way of thinking or thinking about something you haven't pondered before.
This is the still which prompted Trish to challenge whether or not I have "authority" to interpret why Holmes wears the orange scarf around his neck.
Which now brings us to the whole point of this post (finally): Trish states:

[I]n Sherlock Holmes A Game of Shadows, it cannot be proven that the costumer chose the colours in the tradition of art history as you present it.

From where we sit, as viewers, no deduction is really possible.

As Holmes said in writing, "It's a capital mistake to interpret without data."

The film as a whole is its own entity. It is not meant to be read as raw data which we can interpret.

To get at the raw data, you'd have to ask the costumer designer WHY she chose an orange scarf and whether or not she'd heard that the neck represents what we are yoked to.

If she chose the colour for other reasons :: Perhaps because it contrasts well with the blue light of the film so that we can see Holmes in crowd shots more readily :: then your spiritual analysis is an interesting exploration of your own confirmation bias and not a reflection of the truth of the film as it was intended by its creators.


What Trish is describing, the interviewing of the art director and accumulation of primary knowledge, its documentation and other facts regarding the creative process, is called "research." In my post A Call To Arms: The Wizard Of Oz & World War II, my reading/interpretation of the film didn't make any sense because the film makers had decided to remove a scene, but left a "tangent" scene in the film; once I discovered what had been removed, I was able to complete my analysis. Primary research, then, is invaluable and one of the first steps in training for students of the Liberal and Fine Arts. 
Ernest Hemingway at his typewriter.
While the information Trish advances is valuable and desirable to have, there are several problems: there is not always someone to document the information, information gets lost, people forget/lie (yes, people have lied about how something came about), artists don't always know--or can articulate-- why choices were made and there are times when they want to intentionally withhold information. Then, there is the problem of getting that information to the audience with whom the the artist wants to engage. It's become fairly standard practice to include a snippet or two about the making of films in documentary format on movie DVDS and they are informative, however, the documentaries are not art (nor are they supposed to be, even the work of the great Ken Burns is "artistic" but it's not art).
Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal; Antonius and Death play chess.
What Trish is doing, appropriately, is bringing up the ancient question of "authority" and the control an author of a work (regardless its medium) retains after the artist has presented it to an audience. If the film makers wanted to make a statement why the scarf is orange (for example), then prior to Sherlock Holmes A Game of Shadows beginning, a documentary would air informing the audience why; this isn't the standard practice in culture, is it? Beside every painting or sculpture in an art museum, there would be a plaque or book beside each work, detailing everything that had ever been known of that art piece, but only the artist's name, date, dimensions, medium and donor information (if applicable) is attached to pieces in museums who would have the resources to include additional information but chose not to (the exception of course is in museum catalogs which serve no other purpose outside of art history than to collect dust).
Dream, photograph by Imogen Cunningham, 1910.
The question of an artist's authority is undermined by the artist's releasing the art to an audience to engage. An artist does not "display" or "release" their art until it is finished; an artist only releases their art to an audience if they want that audience to engage, knowing that the artist surrenders authority and gives over authority to the audience because the audience is going to engage the art and consume it. If the artist didn't want this to happen, they would never display art (and that happens sometimes) or they wouldn't create to begin with.
The Ditchley Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, an official state portrait. I have intentionally NOT decoded other paintings/art included in this posting so we know the void created by a lack of engagement with art. If we don't study and strive to find and understand a message in a painting such as this one, it sinks to the level of the decorative. Note, please, that behind Elizabeth's head is light and sun on her right, and darkness and clouds on her left; the dark clouds refer to the Catholic Church, which England has separated from during Elizabeth's father's reign, King Henry VIII and Elizabeth cemented England's identity as a Protestant nation during her reign, the light and sun on her right, because the old ways of Catholicism and the darkness of ignorance had been banished from her realm. Her white dress, of course, restates her political role as the "Virgin Queen" betrothed to her country and her people; the jewels upon her gown refer not only to the riches of her empire, but her virtues as a ruler. The pearls she wears around her neck reference her rival for the English throne, Mary Queen of Scots, who's famous state portrait included the pearls Elizabeth confiscated after Mary's execution, reminding viewers of Elizabeth's power to maintain power. Speaking of power, in her right hand, where normally a monarch's scepter would be placed, is an elegant fan, a fashionable emblem of the Elizabethan court, celebrating Elizabeth's international role as a great beauty and cultural icon (France always fancies itself the trendsetter for fashion and Elizabeth is taking that ball into her "court"). The gloves in her right hand are brown, since hands are a part of the arm's strength, she has "taken off her gloves" and won't be humble about holding back her power to establish her kingdom and protect it, bringing us to the map at her feet of counties in England. Her great figure looming over the map, embellished with ships of the English government, assures her people (and visiting foreign dignitaries) that what she rules, she protects, and she alone is ruler in England. This isn't even an introduction to the symbols provided by the artist, but it at least gives us an idea of how powerfully art can be invested with symbols and meaning.
Artist's know their art requires an audience because engagement with the piece is necessary for completing the piece.
Have you ever gone into a museum and just walked around looking at paintings and sculptures and then left without knowing why you bothered to go? That's not what you want and that's not what artists want. Great art (and there is art that isn't great) provokes a response, it means something to the artist and they  want it to mean something to you, and that's where interpretation enters; as discussed above, there is the aesthetic response, which is valid but also very limited (not all artists in every medium limit themselves to childhood trauma, although some do, and just because one phase of an artist's work explores that, doesn't mean they don't enter into political or historical discourse as well). But, as in the Ditchley portrait of Queen Elizabeth II above, there exists a visual language just as there is verbal language and the work of art historians and film critics and play critics is to take the information provided by the decisions the artist(s) have made and translate those choices into a coherent statement which adds depth and meaning to the audiences' encounters with that work.
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Pablo Picasso, 1907, MoMA, New York. This work of art means something, however, if we don't engage it, we neither hear the artist's voice nor do we hear our own.
Art is produced because it has something to say.
We as an audience engage with art because we want to hear it.
Interpreting art is necessary to knowledge about the art, and knowledge about ourselves, as individuals and as a culture.
Every person has a unique set of experiences and understanding about the world; artists bring their experiences and understanding into a format to bond with an audience and help us see those experiences in a way that we have previously not seen them. Symbols and theory is a way to do that, and that is what I employ in my posts. Art history has spent a couple of hundred years probing and studying this language, recording it and making it public for the greater benefit of society.
Mark Rothko, untitled abstract expressionist work (Black and Gray), 1970. I was never into the Abstract Expressionist group until I saw Simon Schama's The Power of Art (available through Netfilx, which is both entertaining and educational). Schama, an art historian and cultural critic, articulated his love for the art of Mark Rothko to me, and while I would not interpret them the same way as Schama does, Schama's enthusiasm gave me an enthusiasm that I did not have previously because Schama taught me how he himself engages with Rothko's work, which has made it possible now for me to engage with it. That's all I hope to do for my readers, who so generously give me some of their time, and I hope that I can present them with something of value in return, something that helps them to not only articulate their own experiences in life with art, but pave the way for new experiences, too.
To interpret is to engage and if we don't engage, the art has failed and we have failed ourselves, because art at its best is a mirror, showing us those aspects that we never note or have always thought of in a specific way,  and now gives us a new way. Interpretations is not only possible, it is necessary, because an artist gives authority over to the audience when it is displayed and to not take up that challenge by engaging the art is to not become an authority on yourself. Far from limiting our exploration of art because we are always going to be limited to our "biases," we should experience freedom in being who we are and articulating who we are.
The Young Alexander the Great being Tutored by Aristotle. The artist makes excellent use of symbols in this work, where are they and what statement are they making?
There are elements, symbols and structures which artists are fully conscious of when they are creating because they have to use it to say something; the decisions they make reflect the process of what best articulates what they want to say and communicate to the audience. The decisions made by an artist--in whatever medium--is the data which we are given to find the message and to find ourselves within that message. Trish has said that a film isn't "raw data" for us to interpret and I agree with her, but for reasons other than what she means. An art work is complete and finished data for us to interpret and every aspect of it has the artist's approval as a part of their message. Each one of us will come up with a different version of that message and that's the point, that creates dialogue, not only between the viewer and the audience, but between different members of the audience and that's why art is so important. It's important to be aware of our inner biases, but it's also important to note that every member has them and has the right to them.
The Large Glass, Marcel Duchamp, 1915-23, Philadelphia Museum of Art. For modern art historians, this is the standard the ultimate challenge in interpretation and audience response. Some art historians spend their entire career writing only about this one piece.
Lastly, just because an artist might not be aware of something they have done, does not mean it cannot be used in interpretation.
The work of art is a deliberate act and, again, is "released" to the public for discourse; the artist becomes only a bystander, sharing their discourse with others, but by being a participant in the art, not an owner of the art and its "intentions."  Please, do not hesitate to challenge me on my readings and interpretations, but, as always, I don't seek to make a definitive statement, that's not possible, nor desirable; I hope that my posts will exercise your own ability to see and understand.
May that give you confidence in your own interpretations and discoveries!