What does it all mean?
Read on for the answers ! All the answers are waiting below!
*Rembrandt- The Night Watch
I want to focus on the problem of interpretation or to state it more properly the problem of precise and correct interpretation. For my taste too many people despise contemporary and modern art and a huge part of them like to say that this kind of art isn’t about anything or that it lacks massage. As a result the interpretations that are given are viewed as false and pretentious or simply made up.
But enough of the generalizations, not everything should be spared criticism, no matter how new and modern. It’s just that too often it is also the notion of correct understanding / reading / interpreting a work of art that is cherished uncritically. I want to speculate on the advantages of misinterpreting while having a few paintings in the background. I’ll try it with the assist of the famous Harold Bloom of course, and, why not, Andy Warhol himself.
So, here’s a Rembrandt and what does it mean? all those people gathered there and for what reason? For one you can let yourself be guided by a movie by Peter Greenaway called: Nightwatching.
He provides an interpretation, a far-reaching one for sure. He decodes the painting as a pamphlet, he explains how Rembrandt smuggled abominable sins of the people presented into the picture, so subtly that you would have no clue otherwise. Is it the correct interpretation? I’d guess it is not. Yet it adds some value: excitement, a story, it brings our attention to details, finally it is entertainment. The painting without all that is still easily a masterpiece. The forms, the colors, the craft, the style, the richness do the work. The point is that Greenaway interpretation, even if not strictly ‘true’ is useful to us, it broadens our general understanding of art and it enhances the painting too. I bet it’s quite possible to invent a story that would go well with this one too:
* Y. Klein – Blue
Despite it being intriguing by itself, there can always be a story behind it. If not factual like Greenaway’s than at least an art theory narrative that explains why at that point of time something like this was so exciting (how well it works for Malevich, Kandinsky etc.). So what I mean is that a painting likes a story to it, be it fiction, or reality, or just scholarly musing on art history, there are handful of approaches and the meaning is not confined to only one of them. On the opposite side there is the fact that a certain work intuitively strikes you visually in the first place, without any words to be used for it, but I don’t want to explore this quality (the pure pleasure of seeing artistic shapes & colors) today.
All things considered it is possible that the vision of Greenaway is actually the correct account of the facts. Very well, here is an even better example: the discussion over Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’. Kubrick makes sure to craft his work remarkably dense and thick with meaning, at the same time ambigious. So, and especially in the case of this movie, he attracts hoards of interpreters, among whom there are hundreds committed so intensely that they sacrifice weeks to decode his cipher. Yet the best aspect of the situation is that there is no proved answer and no way of verifying other than pure rhetoric. And so the madness begins. It is partly documented in an amazing film called Room 237 (a must-watch!)
For the record I feel that a lot of the things said in there are quite sustainable, but of course there is also a great deal of reaching, especially with the moon-landing conspiracy. The most over-the-top case is the analysis by mstrmnd, to be found here: http://mstrmnd.com/log/802 . Besides my ‘not-so-true’ accusation it is a fascinating and thought-provoking read if you come with the right attitude and that I want to stress. For going in only for the ‘Truth’ might make you blind for the opportunities of other kind – the random inspirations that are always to be gained.
It’s just that sometimes so it happens that the author already supplies us with a fascinating narrative and you need not to rely on your own creativity. Mark Tansey, on whom I’ve already written a few words (link) seems to focus mainly on the story, at least in this particular case:
* M. Tansey – The Triumph of the New York School
Here, it’s vital to unearth the ‘correct meaning’ behind it all. But I use it more as an exception than a universal rule. Having said that, here it goes:
The painting is titled the Triumph of the New York School. The title proclaims the historical conquest of American Abstract Expressionism over the mainstream Paris School after World War II. (…)The work appears to be a history painting depicting the battlefield surrender of one army to another. Upon closer inspection, the surrendering army on the left, dressed in World-War I uniforms can be seen as French, while an American army on the right (in WW II uniforms) stands by with a certain casual, non-chalance accepting the capitulation. (…) The two or three French officers are mounted on anachronistic horses while the American “cavalry” is a modern armored half-track.
What is more (I got to trust people who claim this ^^ ) the characters in the painting are all famous painters, artists and critics from both mentioned camps. In this stylized, pseudo realistic moment Pablo Picasso is facing Jackson Pollock as an officer of an antagonostic army. And it is all very clever but untrue historically; the armies are taken from different periods, nor did Americans ever fought French. It is however perfectly true conceptually, as at some point the French style became obsolete and marginalized in the art world after years of domination and hence modern, aggressive forces of abstract expressionist took their spot until, again, they failed to oppose Warhol and Rauschenberg’s brand new wave of art. The joke is that while there is a correct, true interpretation of this work at the same time it refers to a made up world, so in a way this also can be seen as untrue.
Tansey’s is not a direct rival of Rembrandt, he aims at different goals and uses other means to create meaning. I’m quite convinced in fact that he proposes more to those who enjoy narratives and deciphering, while Rembrandt is many levels above in this prima facie, purely visual quality. But then Greenaway is ready to propose a little upgrade and make his Night Watch even more intense in the narrative aspect. It is a distinct quailty of great art that it attracts reinterpretations over and over again.
*A. Warhol – Dollar Sign
Warhol (or Klein) on the other hand, proposes a ‘free for all’ approach. This dollar sign is not breathtaking, nor it is having any compelling story to tell. Being very superficial, it still strikes you and you still want to know what is to be said about it. But there is little place for a story in such an example. As interesting it may be to theoretically explore what is new here from the point of view of theory, what kind of social changes and alternations of life style make Warhol’s ideas successful, this artwork is quite plain, at least compared to the other two. No armies, no merchants, no context. Still it breeds interpretations, yet in this case it is really hard to mark so easily the line between correct and false ones, in fact there isn’t any. It is doable for Greenaway, at least potentially (deciding if Rembrandt made those details for that reason or not), it is clearly doable for Tansey, no doubt. Yet here is one of many examples of art that is valuable in its openness and when the search for the proper meaning is futile form the start. It enables you to find a quite new path. Now let’s ask why anyone would want to err around, if there is no place to reach.
Simply it would be to stumble upon undiscovered or at least unpopular places, just like this:
*C. D. Friedrich – Morning
Harold Bloom was placing such erring as early as in modus operandi of romantic poets. As he argues in ‘The Anxiety of Influence’, the most original artists of that time could not live by the rules set for them. And so, even without being conscious about it they misread and misinterpreted the works of their masters. You could say that they only lived to create something new, unprecedented, to reach new heights and above all they feared repetition. Therefore here is the prise of erring. It enables individuals to proceed with art, to climb up the stairs of style and form by not following preciesly the rules and guides set for them. Still it all concerns the art before modernism, so only the chosen few were able to embark on their lone journeys. By no means was it common practise. The rest still had to listen to the wise men who provided their knowledge about artworks to others, less educated, less able to pinpoint the proper meaning.
With Warhol we often talk about democratization, in various contexts. Possibly the non-rigid, creative interpretation is one of them. I’m not saying he invented it, just that he used it. By escaping the complicated structure behind the work of art, there are no longer authorities who can be sure that only they have the key. Now everyone can try to apply his/her own reading, and quite frankly, it is hard to go wrong. Then again, of course there is academic consensus on same aspects and even on what that kind of works mean – but it can only be general and vague. The line between correct and wrong is very poorly visible here. Practically every reading of Warhol is an obvious encouragment for misreading, you know from the start that you can’t do anything solid and provable, while Kubrick trickily lures you into attempting it, by leaving traces all over the surface, although noone can be sure to what they really lead to. And this ‘what’ is the fundament of all serious art.
To sum it up, Tansey is much more dependent on the proper reading of his work than Warhol. This is to say Tansey is more likely to give you the ‘pleasure of finding out’ , the detective story riddle-solving kind of thrill. Warhol, however, is more of an author figure who hides in the shadow to see what each and every one of use can create by looking at his product. He stimulates our personal creativity and I suppose he was happy to see a great plurality of opinions. Instead of setting a goal to reach, he is just pushing us through the door to leave us alone in his world. He did the same in his ‘factory’, where he gathered all the craziest characters just to sit and watch what would happen. It is enough to remark, that a lot did happen. The third manner, the Greenaway/Kubrick one goes through the middle. There seem to be a proper interpretation, the key to the perfect understanding shines presumably within your reach, yet for all intents and purposes it is extremely hard to determine which one is correct, hence the zealous activity of the interpreters and overabundance of explanations.
Both extreme approaches are valuable, just consider another digression. By the words the evolution theory – the most successful genes are those that reproduce the most often. All those complicated mechanisms are set in motion to create a perfect copy over and over again, the more the better. Reading and interpreting an art work is like a process of copying ‘the meaning’, from the canvas to our mind. Now, when this is not the case, when an error occurs, as they do from time to time, the anomaly is created. Often a poor version or a weak version of the model that dies out quickly. Yet once in a while, the newly created configuration happens to be better and even more effective. That’s because as the environment changes there is always room for change, for improvement. Thereupon the misreading, misinterpreting and erring is nothing less but an attempt to find something more suitable and to push things forward. There is a need for stability and there is need for progress, consequently, being not correct is a way of evolving, a hit-or-miss but still. If you think that attempting a wrong interpretation (that is not along the lines of author’s thought) is always useless, then I have to accuse you of simply being wrong. If an art work seems not to be about anything yet it grabs your attention for some unexplained reason, maybe it’s an open invitation to form your own sense, as I said earlier: to push things forward.
Do you think Picasso was an expert on african tribal masks and the culture that produced them with a particular inted? How could this milestone in art history be anything other than careless misreading:
*P. Picasso – The Young Ladies of Avignon
Summary: Tansey is an example of a need for a correct interpretation (yet in fictional world!), Greenaway of a useful but wrong (or undecided) interpretation and Warhol of a work devoided of correct interpretation, while all three being great food for thought.
For no matter how much a work of art may appear to be a historical datum, and thus a possible object of scholarly/scientific research, it is always the case that the work says something to us, and it does so in such a way that its statement can never be exhaustively expressed in a concept.
H.G. Gadamer – Text and Interpretation