(My sincere apologies if you are reading this in some language besides the Jargon it was written in. I guess translation programs do as well as they can, but I desperately hope that all the nuance of the points I am making and the colloquialisms of Galactic Jargon shine through as both blindingly intelligible and bulkily persuasive. This is the eternal hope when words from one form of life are made to fit into words from another. Understanding other people’s art faces this same challenge. Its sometimes as if we were receiving transmissions from a distant world, messages from an all too alien planet….)
Confession: I often don’t ‘get’ much of contemporary art these days. But then I’m not sure it was even meant to be talking to me. I’m just not sure that this art even cares whether I understand it or not, much less whether I like it. The art I ‘understand’ and my tastes seem to have a logic all their own. For instance, even though I adore plenty of Classical music, I don’t really ‘get’ Opera. I don’t see the point of many paintings, and most sculpture seems way over my head. But I do get pottery. Is that strange?
Sometimes art resonates with an audience, and our belief in the rightness and virtue of its creative vision is confirmed. How could it not be? What the artist is doing has just demonstrated its meaning for these other people as well, enough so that they sometimes spend good money to support its efforts. This can be both welcome and satisfying to an artist: Art DOES matter to people.
But there are also occasions when things go horribly wrong. This is a post on the potential for misunderstanding, not just in art, but as the very real consequence of being human. This is a post about the fundamental difference between expression and communication, and how we sometimes confuse the two. And its a real question for me as a potter: Just what am I trying to express, and what exactly is being understood by the public? Is it ever a straightforward simple transaction of meaning and intent?
In a recent post I argued that an important role for art was as a means of communication. At least, that’s how it is often intended, the artist ‘saying something’ to an audience: “This here is bee-yoo-tee-fuhl” or some such. And how poorly or well supported some of the Arts are is quite probably the result of how effectively artists are getting their message across. Why would something be supported if it was not understood? If art is trying to be understood, trying to be appreciated, it does this only by communicating.
And in the public domain it makes sense to look at Art in this way. As an industry, the Arts stand or fall on how well they reach an audience. Its not simply that art sitting unsold on shelves isn’t good, its just that it doesn’t say the right things to its viewers for it to earn its keep. It has to communicate before it can be either liked or disliked. And if quality and popularity are two separate trends, even the best of quality will go unnoticed if it is inaccessible. (I just read where an Opera company is now selling tickets at $5/month because 80% of its revenues are from philanthropy and it makes almost more sense to give tickets away than to sell them to only an elite crowd that can afford high prices. Fascinating!)
But finding an appreciative audience is not always how or why art is created. I know some artists who are interested only in their own expression, what it means to them, and NOT how it communicates to the world. There is no ‘message’ because there is no one it is talking to. There are undoubtedly some artists who keep all their work in boxes, tucked away in the attic, unseen by others’ eyes, unheard by others’ ears.
Some things are created purely by an inner impulse and not consideration of some external or clearly articulated goal. Art isn’t only those things that by luck or intention find their way onto a community’s pedestal or stage. Its what humans do with their imagination. Creativity often discovers itself as an act of expression. Just ask every child with a crayon. There is no intrinsic difference between the imagination that creates things to be shared and invents things to be held privately. Creativity is just basic to human nature. Sometimes art making can be as primal as scratching an itch….
In fact, the world is filled with songs sung only in the shower; private dances that only twilight sprites and woodland nymphs get to see; visions birthed in the blinding flash of a lightning bolt and only temporarily burned on the artist’s retina; collages of images gathered from the corners of that artist’s every memory and housed only in the vaulted Sistine Chapel of their own cranium; poems coded in internally cryptologic obscurity; bits of peas and rice being pushed around a plate on a summer evening, and then scooped up and consumed; clouds dancing majestically through the shapes of faces and bizarre animals; interesting patterns cast by dappled shadows through the leaves; ephemeral sculptures towering into sudden existence and washed away with the very next breath…. Sometimes the creative message of curiosity in the world can seem like it was meant for that person’s eyes only.
These things are sometimes so intensely private and personal that outside witnesses are more intruder than observer. In fact, I know some artists who proclaim they are not even curious what anyone else thinks. Their interest extends only as far as the creative vision itself. This art is not trying to engage an audience. The truth is, creative types are often simply interested in what their imagination provides or reveals, and decidedly not always in how it gets received. Sometimes our art is so internally focused that it is at most a private conversation, and an audience is only dropping eves and in butting where they are not wanted.
But sometimes artists will blur the line between expression and communication. Some art can be put out in public expressing something the artist wants to say but with absolutely no hope that it will be understood that way. Its sometimes not about communicating: Its about expressing. And the public can take it or leave it. It simply doesn’t always matter to the artist. Or it does if the artist has confused how well expression qualifies as communication…. Sometimes art can be more about the personal catharsis of the maker than any consideration for the audience. Like an inarticulate cry from a mountain top, a dream induced whimper in the night. The artist can be so focused on what something means to him or her that they don’t understand or sometimes even care that the public may not see the same things, or seeing them agree. And that is the difference between expression and communication.
And because almost any expression is hopelessly short of being sensitive to ALL peoples, sometimes art also sticks its foot in its mouth. Sometimes Art unintentionally offends all manner of the public. Sometimes even the best intentioned art will poke innocent bystanders in the eye and leave a trail of howling injured. The fundamental fact of human communication is that it is so imperfect, and so perfectly capable of widely differing interpretation. And these nebulous consequences are often unseen when an artist puts something out for public inspection. The poor artist just knows what he/she intends to say, not what other people will make of it….
Take for instance this recent artistic faux pas (WARNING! If you are sensitive and sheltered like me this can be quite disturbing and offensive):
Was it this artist’s intention to be offensive and controversial? Perhaps. But then, don’t we all also know instances when we say things we later regret? When a momentary emotional outburst was needed, but the burned bridges, salted fields, and desolate villages we leave behind were never considered? When we used napalm instead of ten calm seconds before we act? When we shoot first and ask questions later? When we express things that we feel at the moment, but don’t stop to think it would hurt people we care about? Don’t we all make mistakes in communication at times?
And if words can get us so in trouble sometimes, why would we ever imagine that our art was always straightforward and accessible, no matter how we dumb it down and appeal to the lowest common denominators? Why would we ever be tempted to think that folks will grasp all the nuance and personal provinciality we sometimes express? Sure, we can make it mass appeal worthy, but even the mass doesn’t include all people. Why would we ever be surprised when some folks turn away? Isn’t all art written in an alien language to some people out there? Doesn’t all art express the incomprehensible life from the distant planet Jargon to someone?
Something to think about, at least…..