Discovering Art – Discovery
Part 6 of 6
I suggested that artists give their work to the public who instinctively begin interpreting. This left us with a question: how can we interpret correctly? There is a closet full of meaning and there are many ways to access it, but I hope simply to offer you a key that unlocks the door. Once you figure the lock and turn the knob, most everything will tumble out. But before you take the keys, we need to talk about what we can know.
What is knowledge? Facts, right? If you want know something, you collect the data, test it, keep the true and toss the false. You then establish certainties about reality: truth statements, propositions, concrete knowledge. We pursue timeless, sovereign, capital Truth. This model is familiar, but does it hold?
Five years ago I did not know how to read poetry. When I read William Butler Yeats I thought, “This is cute” or “This is confusing”. I sensed he meant more, but I could not discern it on my own. I took a poetry course where my teacher began pointing at things. “This is contrast…See how repetition develops that character…This theme recurs…And the inconclusive tension you feel? A wholeness incomplete? It’s intended; typical Yeats.” I kept reading. I wrote, I discussed, I listened, I trusted and reread. When I open to The Fisherman, now I know what to look for. “Before I am old / I shall have written him one / Poem maybe as cold / And as passionate as the dawn.” I see what Yeats wants me to see: unfulfilled desire, bipolar expression, trout fishing allusions. Poetry makes more sense. I no longer fork for meaning in the dark; I have the poet with two hands.
How is this significant for interpreting? If knowledge reduces to Truths, then The Fisherman reduces to Truth A, Truth B, and Truth C. But when I learned to interpret poetry, I did not learn to decode. Poetry did not become a math equation where “swans” = freedom and “I” = everyman. It involved this, but was not diminished to it. Interpretation is not a factory. We do not scan a poem or painting, enter a code, and receive a print out of its Truth. Interpreting is more like a relationship. You learn to cooperate with the artist and the work. You participate. You meet, inquire and listen. This involves not only thinking, but also feeling and doing. Knowing a piece of art – interpreting it – is not cognitive truth and error; it is a full-bodied skill.
Once you hone the skill something else happens. I had Yeats with two hands; I knew what he meant. But just as my grip steadied and I stared him in the eye, he began writhing and shouting louder than before. He was not so easily conquered. My insights crystallized, but my questions were proliferating. Meaning is not distilled by correct interpretation; it explodes.
Would the artist agree? I think so. If they wanted to communicate a proposition, they could have. It would be far less risky and easier to interpret. Yeats may have written, “My contemporaries are idiots. I want to write for a wise and simple people.” But he wrote a poem instead. Artists choose a medium and create more than a sentence. Then they give it to us. They present and exhibit their artwork. Why? Because they want us to discover something.
How do we discover? We need those keys. I have already suggested some: find a teacher, cooperate with the artist, do not reduce their art to “Truths”. Other suggestions are scattered throughout this series: consider the context, learn a bit about the artist, pay attention. There are two final keys for interpretation, very strong yet very simple: listen and ask questions. Ask more questions and keep listening. This excludes two things: talking all the time and assuming you are infallible. The closet is full of meaning. If you want in, there is no need to break the knob, axe the doorframe or unscrew the hinges. Take these keys and use them.
Artists have given us a product because they want us to discover something. What do they intend us to find? Certainly more than truth statements. It may be humor, insights simple or profound, a dormant sorrow or raging passion. They may even hope that you discover a motive for rebellion, brotherly love, or ambivalence. Regardless, go. Find a piece of art and try to make sense of it. If you read “Young-adult fiction”, you may find more than child’s play. If you watch The Dark Night Rises, you may see more than a mask. Or one of those odd post-modern paintings may confront you with the heartache of an entire generation. It may even prompt you to do something about it. And if you are courageous enough to ask and humble enough to listen, you may discover that some artists have profound views on the origin and purposes of the world; and why its inhabitants seem so god-awful yet so mesmerizing.