“Now tell us when you are free and in mood, whose aesthetic interpretation of a work should we go by when there are conflicting interpretations of a work--the artist's or the art critic. Especially when the artist is simple and down to earth and not good at elucidating ideas and the critic is extravagantly imaginative,” ask my artist friend, Usha Ramachandran. She is an artist who has devoted her life to capture her emotional responses to life in various mediums including drawing, painting and exquisitely modelled bronze sculptures. Older than me by many years, she keeps a young mind when it comes to art. Like a young enthusiast she engages with questions regarding art raised by people in private and public platforms. Even when she disagrees with your point of view, she poses it mildly without causing any hurt to anybody, but stands by her opinion with energy and clarity. Such energy and clarity are seen rare even amongst the artists younger by age. Hence, I find it is extremely important to answer the question raised by her. As quoted above, the question is: Whose view is ‘the’ right view, of the artist’s or of the imaginative critic?
I remember a view expressed by a contemporary artist on one such occasion. He said: Once freed from the studio of the artist, a work of art takes to its own trajectory, finding meanings and leaving interpretations possibilities till it finds it resting place in a collection or a museum. Though the commentator avoids mentioning about the agency of people who helps a work of art travel from one place to another, the implication is quite apparent. There are people who help the work to find its own path; they are the critics, gallerists, buyers, dealers, collectors and now the new tribe called curators. In each step facilitated by these agents of meaning production both spiritual and economic or in other words, intrinsic and extrinsic meanings, a work of art behaves in a very flexible manner without disputing such meaning generations, at times succumbing to the negative pressures and at times finding wings to soar further high. This flexibility of a work of art opens up its possibility as a visual text capable of generating multiple meanings often not intended by the artist himself or herself.
Text is the key word here. A freed work of art from the clutches of the artist/studio is a text. A text carried as an implied meaning as intended by the artist. But the intended or revealed meaning of a work of art as seen within the confines of an artist’s studio is the primary meaning therefore a visual code or clue. A work of art in this sense, is a text containing one or more clues. As the artist does not work from a vacuum, his very meaning production through the creation of a visual text itself is the result of the artist’s effort to contain contesting ideas or experiences in a one comprehensive and aesthetically logical visual clue. That means, a work of art in itself is a negation of various meanings, which struggle for manifesting in the work of art. Had it been a verbal text the artist could have accommodated several meaning at one go through various characters, incidents, plots and subplots. The biggest problem faced by a visual artist is that he has to work from within the limitation of a single moment, even if the work shows the tendency of being narrative. Either it is a decisive moments, painted, sculpted, captured and documented or it is a series of decisive moments spread around one singular point of departure. Raising of one point over the other/s in effect results into the obfuscation of the other points or moments in a work of art. While literature also leaves spaces for further interpretations, it becomes a bit more ‘liberal’ in the case of a visual work of art.
This is where we talk about sub-texts. Each reading of a work of art by a critic (informed or not) or a common art lover, or in that case by anybody who happens to spend a few minutes on it, is the production of a subtext. Here, this critic or the viewer is not an innocent person absolutely coming from a vacuum. He/she too comes with a set of acquired knowledge and experience which automatically functions as a key to unpack the given text. As we have seen that the given text is the negation of several texts in favour one, the reading of it becomes at once an acceptance of the intended text and the negation of it. The whole effort of the viewer is to subconsciously negate the diktat of the artist/author and find his/her own text there. This again happens as a series of negations; first the negation of the intended meaning/text and the replacing of it with several subtexts. Even the selection of the subtexts cannot be a crowding affair. There the viewer chooses one of his preferred meanings which could either go by the author’s intentions or by his own knowledge and experience. Hence, the reading of a work of art (as it is seen as a text), is the negation of authorial intentions and consecration of the readerly intentions. In other words, a writerly text turns into a readerly one and in the process, it ones again becomes a writerly text or subtext. It happens like a chain of fissions and that is how the reading of a work of art proliferates.
Now, one may ask how then ‘a certain kind of reading’ or meaning making takes predominance over other meaning making efforts and comes to have a canonical presence. It depends on the right of speaking; who says what and when and also why. If the author is supposed to be the sole authority of a particular research and his work of art is the result of such a scholastic effort and in a given context if none is capable of challenging such erudition, naturally the verbal explanations accompanying a work of art direct the reading of it. The artist may speak for himself or even through a catalogue writer (not necessarily a critic), or a gallerist or a dealer. They all tend to repeat the scholarship of the author/artist as their tools are limited to interpret or challenge the meaning which has been already intended by the artist. In a different scenario, we see a viewer or a reader confronts a text with equal or better erudition on the given field of research within the given context and reads out a new meaning or cancels out an intended meaning. Hence, I would say, reading of a work of art is a sort of power game. It is a relationship between two or more power centres; author claiming his right to hold his meaning and the reader challenging it. While the former scenario where the artist is near to God in knowledge of the given, the reader yields to the artist’s authority and in the second scenario in subtle or aggressive ways, he questions the authority of the artist. An informed critic, while reserving his praises for the authorial intentions, reveals the chinks in those intentions and creates a new meaning in his critical intervention. However, such critical interventions do not cancel out the very existence of the work of art. Instead, it becomes an event, a point of departure that spurs too many events around it.
In any situation, creation of a work of art and reading of it or interpreting of it is a political act. What I mean by political is not in the conventional sense of pragmatic politics. This politics is about the ideology of self or rather idea and ideal of the self. How does the self negotiate past, present and try to cross over to the future. Even in the choicest expressions, unintentional ideologies could crop up as the artist is subconsciously driven by such ideological forces. It appears like a slip of the tongue that goes unnoticed. But it gets noticed in another political act, the act of reading and understanding a work of art. As I mentioned before, the viewer also does not come from a vacuum. He has his own conscious and subconscious ideological leanings which lead him towards the production of a meaning which is totally different from that of the artist.
There are three main aspects when it comes to the creation and understanding of a work of art. First of all, a work of art is an intentional and unintentional text at once so is the reading of it. So one cannot claim authority over the other in a given ideal situation. Two, it is a power game pertaining to the right to speak as well as to be heard. In this both the artist and the viewer participate in this game for power and prominence. But interestingly, both are not cancelled out in the process. However, one gets dominance over the other in a given situation which is prone to change when the situation and context change. It may take even centuries for such changes to happen. Three is the ideological negotiations of the artist as well as the viewer with the past, present and future. Some ideologies are so strong that they become myths that are hardly challenged by any. It happens both with the ideology of the artist as well as that of the reader. This myth is also prone to be deconstructed with the changing times; but the difference is unlike the second scenario, even the myth is challenged and reinterpreted for changed times by readerly intentions and creation of subtexts, the myths once created remains to be a myth, therefore a starting point for newer interpretations. The artists need not necessarily be vocal even when the critics are hyper imaginative. The mutual cancellation is simultaneously mutual rediscovery. I can say this much that in this process the artist and the viewer get constantly re-discovered, at times vigorously and at other times in very subtle ways.