Arbtirary thoughts on nearly everything from a modernist poet, structural mathematician and functional programmer.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Art and Meaning

A recent Abstruse Goose reminded me of Preface to Dorian Gray. Of course, people deride critics all the time. Especially modern art critics. I tend to defend art critics even though I don't understand them, because I know they are working from a different framework, a different background and dialogue than most people (including myself), and that this framework is not necessarily wrong.

But this Abstruse Goose reminded me of something that I don't like about... well, most people who discuss art, and this thing is what reminded me of Dorian Gray: Trying to find meaning in art is to murder it. The criticism and analysis of art should concern itself only with the aesthetics of the art-- the emotional complex that the art inspires. Yes, a piece of art can have a moral, or a meaning, but if the piece does not stand without that moral, then it is a failure as a work of art. The meaning should be extracted and the work discarded.

If something can be said, it can be said directly. "But," you say, "what about metaphors and paraboles?" Yes, they have their place, but they are not art, and should not be treated as such. Pilgrim's Regress is not a good piece because it tells the tale of someone coming to God; it is a good piece because it captures the beauty, the sehnsucht that helped to define Lewis's faith. Without capturing this beauty, it would be nothing. Speaker for the Dead is not a good piece because it questions the neo-colonialism inherent in anthropological methodology; it is a good piece because it captures so many emotional struggles.

I mentioned two novels, because novels most often do have a meaning; but the meaning is not what makes them good art. Aesthetic considerations are what make or break a novel. On the other hand, most visual art, and most good poetry do not have a meaning, and trying to suck meaning out a poem or picture is to fail to see the piece as art. This is unforgivable.

You may say that understanding the meaning helps to appreciate the aesthetics. Take my example of Pilgrim's Regress: is the aesthetic appeal not greater appreciated by understanding the God and the path to salvation? Yes, it surely is, but this understanding is assumed by the work, not expressed by the work. Someone approaching the work from a framework similar to Lewis's own will be better able to appreciate the work. But this says nothing about meaning. Understanding the background of a work, understanding the dialogue that the work is a part of and the "etymology" (if you will forgive the abuse of terminology) of the work will give someone a better appreciation for the aesthetics of the work. But to say that this is achieved by studying the meaning of the work is to commit cum hoc ergo propter hoc. Just because understanding the background helps both to understand the meaning and the aesthetics does not mean that understanding the meaning helps you to understand the aesthetics.

By the way, this is why you will rarely (never?) see me engage in a semantic analysis of a poem; I will study it syntactically, and I will study the way images are invoked, but I will not attempt to understand the author's intent, or understand the meaning of a poem. If the intent is anything but to create something of beauty, then I don't care.

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