General Musings: What does it all mean?

If I could tell you that, I wouldn’t have to dance it.

– Isadora Duncan

It is a vice of second-rate art to come with its own eloquent explanation attached. If an artist can translate the meaning and purpose of a work into easily understandable words, it means one of two things. Either the artist is lying, in order to ease the way with patrons and funders; or the artist is a fool. And if dishonesty is the reason, that too is something that vitiates art. No serious art is easy to interpret. Nor is there ever a single valid interpretation of art. If art is good, there are many things to be said about it and much that will remain unsayable.

Does art need explaining, asks the Guardian Arts blog? Well, I think it’s probably right on both counts. When it comes to pragmatics – writing funding applications, persuading venues to show the work, attracting an audience – then I think it is useful to be able to provide some kind of “explanation” of the work as a coherent set of ideas. What is the artist doing, and how? Why would people want to see it? Venue managers want to know they’re not going to be housing the work in an empty building, and funders want to know that the work meets their particular funding remit. The artist-as-business-manager needs to be able to state the case for the work, or the work probably isn’t going to happen.

However, is this kind of “explanation” really a satisfying insight into the work-as-art? This I doubt. Great art – whether literature, theatre, cinema or visual art – is perhaps characterised by its ability to sustain more than one interpretation. This is why great art endures – it speaks to audiences in different historical and social contexts. A great work can be returned to by the same viewer (listener/reader) and yield new layers of interpretation each time – its message is not blandly monofaceted but complex, manifold. Great art invites multiple explanations. The artist-as-critic may have an explanation of their own work, but if this is the only interpretation available then we are probably looking at a rather dull, simple, redundant piece of work.

This is not to resist criticism. It is always illuminating and interesting to find out details of how a work was produced, its background and context; indeed, when I enjoy a work, I very often want to find out more about how it was made and what else was happening at the time. What the original blog post is advocating (and I largely agree with) is a resistance to providing easy explanations for gallery programmes and press releases, that misleadingly suggest to an audience that this is all that can be said about a work.

When I view a dance work, I’m aware that my view is informed by my own training and experience of making work as well as of seeing other professional works, and that I probably see the work very differently to somebody with a different background. That the work speaks to both myself and a non-dancer in different ways is a strength of the work. I would hate to think anyone in the audience felt limited in their interpretation by a pat statement in the programme.

It is possible that audiences of the same work see images of birth, death, love, betrayal, cycling, picking one’s nose or shopping. They might even see nothing beyond the materials of the work – the paint and canvas, the moving bodies, the words and music – and be satisfied. That a work can sustain different understandings is to me a strength and not a weakness. For art to be explained does not stifle the production of art – artists need to give a practical explanation in order to obtain the practical means to create and show work. But to close down meanings to one given explanation limits the audience’s own engagement and closes down the life of the work in the public imagination, and this may indeed be the enemy of art in terms of its celebration and duration.

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