Posts Tagged ‘interpretation’

Can Art Be Lost In Translation?

January 7, 2016

MarriageOfArts+LettersMy previous post, The Magic Of Ideas, addressed the frequently asked question,‘Where do you get your ideas?’ This week, I offer my response to another one: ‘What did you mean to say with this image?’. This question is less direct because its silent subtext is asking, ‘can you please translate this picture for me?’ as though it were a foreign language. And in a sense, it is.

Art and spoken languages are similar in that both are composed of symbols with which we express ourselves. But there is one major difference. Spoken languages have been standardized for global communication while the language and vocabulary of art remain fluid and singular to each artist as in the distinctive works of Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch or Belgian surrealist René Magritte. Upon close scrutiny, we might notice that certain elements appear and reappear throughout their larger body of works. Yet, beyond reams of third party analyses of these artists’ technical skills and cultural influences, who knows what they were really trying to say?

Some great artists such as Johannes Vermeer and Sandro Botticelli may have embedded obscure symbols and codes within their images, signaling their true intent to the cognoscenti of their times but leaving no written clues for future generations. An interesting article by Mark Hudson in the January 7th edition of The Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/11449077/10-paintings-with-hidden-meanings.html) sheds some light on this idea.

Occasionally, someone comments that my work is always recognizable, yet they rarely give a specific reason for why that is so. In truth, I’m equally mystified.

I do know that a sort of visual language made of certain symbols and images runs through my work. These can be seen as ‘words’ in a dynamic visual dictionary with which I can construct ‘sentences that tell a story’. When I develop new ‘words’, this resource ‘grows’ as needed. To effectively use it, however, there is a two-part question I must answer upon beginning each new project: ‘what do I want to say here and how can I best do so’? The answer to this inner question is not a goal in itself; it is the opening gambit of an inner dialogue that guides my creative process and the narrative that will accompany the completed work.

Writing narratives to accompany my work was provoked early in my career by a mid-20th century anomaly, particularly among Abstract Expressionists. Their use of the word, ‘Untitled’  to name a work of art both intrigued and offended me, raising several questions. Were they simply inarticulate, unable to come up with a statement or title? Or were they convinced that their brand of creativity defied title or definition? If so, would they answer that ‘art just is and we create it because we can? Would they offer the hackneyed argument that writing is unnecessary because true art should speak for itself ?

Occasionally, when verbiage from gallerists and art critics includes only vague comments by the artists, these artists risk being misunderstood. Maybe they simply don’t care. Maybe they prefer to maintain their own mystique by foisting responsibility for interpreting their work upon others. Still, I am dismayed that relatively few bother to write about their work or what inspires them to create it.

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That said, Lee Krasner, who made the ‘Untitled’ work above, did leave us some quotes but these were mostly comments about the time in which she worked and not specific to any one work. As viewers, we may truly enjoy a work’s ambiguity. But if we accept responsibility for interpreting it and the artist provides no language that allows his or her work to ‘speak’, we are denied a starting point, thwarting our natural curiosity and rendering that work easily dismissed.

I am reminded of our fascination with both the art and  writing of such luminaries as Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh or Salvador Dali. In their journals and personal letters, we like to look for backstories behind their works but I think we mostly want to know what made these geniuses tick. So at the very least, I think that viewers deserve more information than just ‘untitled’; even if the intent of a work is only expressed with a relevant moniker or encapsulated in a couple of sentences.

The need to incorporate writing into my creative process helps me understand what I have made, who I was when I made it and how it fits into my larger body of work. Also, by ‘translating’ my ‘image story’ with notes that later become a more detailed statement, I recognize that as we all learn differently, so do we see differently and can sometimes appreciate art more through its descriptive text.  This practice actually grew from requests for more information about my images from those who attended my exhibits. Consequently, I began posting narratives beside each work and in an exhibition’s catalog.

But I really write about my work because it feels incomplete otherwise. I believe that words and images should not be mutually exclusive and that metaphorically, art and writing are like two faces of the same coin. This idea was inspired by the multi-talented French artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau in 1962 when he wrote : “I relax from writing by working with my hands, by painting or drawing; I relax from painting by writing…as if drawing were anything other than handwriting {untied and} re-tied differently.” Each face of that coin brings different parts of my brain into play and I, like Cocteau, enjoy the challenge of engaging them both for mutual benefit.

Accordingly, I’ve chosen my 1985 drawing  ‘The Marriage of Art and Letters’ with its allegorical figures of Art and Writing to illustrate this post.

I can’t know whether my work and texts will survive me but I hope that my small contribution to the social and cultural history of future generations will be available in some form. Perhaps only this blog, preserved through some new technology, will allow my art to be ‘found’ in translation.

And that’s good enough for now.