Lately I have been engaged in a number of conversations about meaning in the arts and art as a form of communication. The inimitable Chuck Wendig had a decent post on why breaking grammatical rules was okay. I agreed with everything he said except the following:
“I’m fond of saying that we need to learn the rules of writing in order to break them, and we need to break the rules of writing in order to learn why we need them in the first place.”
My response was:
Don’t give rules too much credit. At least, don’t credit them with some sort of objective value. We don’t *need* to learn THE rules. We need to learn some rules, a variety perhaps, and use them according to situations and our intentions. The need is merely that some sort of structure is the conveyance of meaning, but the structure itself is negotiable.
We are given a deck of 52 cards: What are the rules? We have to decide what game we are playing first for any rules to even make sense. The rules have no value outside the game being played. A queen is more valuable than an 8? A spade more valuable than a diamond? You have to follow the 6 of clubs with either a club or another 6? Neither of those? None of this matters unless you are playing a specific game by specific rules, and the rules only stand for that one game.
Our use of language is exactly like that. And art is a language so this is specifically about art too. There isn’t one set of rules that governs all applications. Objective values in art and most other forms of communication are a hobgoblin of peculiar minds. What we mean we mean within the confines of how and why we are expressing ourselves. And there are so many rules that its almost a miracle we can figure each other out. Think of the possible types and expressions of art and you get a sense. How is it possible we convey meaning with art? One set of rules?
It may not be self evident what game we are playing, but we are masters of our native tongue, and there is often enough evidence that a person ‘speaking’ sensibly can provide the clues that will make sense for us too. We start out accepting different things as meaningful, but we can be bridge that gap. We have different values, but we can find sympathies and even crossovers. We can learn to read a new language and to speak it ourselves.
Narrowing the acceptable rules to just a handful is a misunderstanding of rules and a discredit to our native manipulation of rules. It stands in defiance of the fluidity of communication itself. Language is like a tool, and we use it for a variety of purposes. Each purpose asks us to use language in a more or less specific way. But each purpose asks different things, and we can even invent new purposes as well as innovate tools. So language can be thought of as doing many jobs, and each of these jobs performs a task in an occasionally different manner from other tasks. The point being that its not ‘the same‘ task in all cases.
Language is a tool kit for a variety of purposes. Imagine it like this. You can use a bowl to drink soup and eat chili, among other things. A plate is not as good for soup, but a cup may be less useful for chili. Are we drinking soup or eating chili? What vessel are we going to use? We almost always have options. Language is that vessel. Art is that vessel. So:
Rules? Don’t be a slave to rules. Ask first what we are trying to do, and then you may find there is more than one way of getting what you want. There can be a variety of tool uses that achieve our purpose. The purpose we have is the important thing, not the rules for using specific tools. A hammer is not governed by the rules for using a saw. Don’t put the cart before the horse…….
An hour or so after I posted that comment I saw a response to a different conversation in another thread. This was a facebook post about whether the theater needed to be meaningful in a particular way or even to be understood on some level to be successful. I had said:
Not every story is an exercise in meaning, and not every meaning is absolute. Sometimes meaning is important and other times its not. Sometimes one meaning is prominent and other times there are many things meant, many intentions, and none necessarily standing for the whole more than the others. And sometimes the meaning is open ended, and left purposely vague. Sometimes it is designed in such a way that it can only be completed by the audience. Sometimes it is an ending that only we ourselves can write.
A story can phase from the overt to the hidden, it can blend our own understanding with the intention of the authors. It can even be without intention. A story is not one thing but many. A story is both something finite and final and alive and evolving. If we get any part of that we will have given it a home in our minds, hearts, and souls…..
The person responding said:
“Oh for crying out loud. Theater is about communication. If you don’t want to communicate, keep the manuscript in your desk drawer instead of putting it on a stage.” (Apparently this guy teaches theater at a University)
My response was:
I agree that the theater is at least significantly about communication but it seems there is not one single sense in which it communicates. Is making a statement the same as engaging in a dialog? Is asking a question the same as pointing to possibilities? Is having an answer the same as laying out a scenario? Is giving one’s personal perspective the same as making universal claims? Is telling a joke the same as revealing bitter truths? Is giving us something to ponder the same as asking for advice? Is expressing oneself the same as communicating?
I’m just not sure you can leave it at theater being ‘about communication’ without accepting that communication takes many forms and that meaning is portrayed and invested differently depending on how and why things are communicative. If it were simple we wouldn’t have both comedies and tragedies. We wouldn’t have entertainment pieces and serious explorations of the human condition.
And if we can have this breadth of meaning it seems reasonable that communication can fail. It also seems that communication doesn’t need to be the point. Some things are worth saying even if they are likely to be misunderstood. We can express ourselves for a variety of purposes, not all of which are designed to ‘communicate’. You can say something to point things out and you can say things to deflect and draw away. Is subterfuge communication per se? You can cheer your successes to hide your shortcomings. You can speak your mind to cover your ignorance……. And you can make mistakes and be mistaken.
So communication, yes, but that still hasn’t said anything interesting.
Stuff to think about, at least 🙂