Monday, September 3, 2018

Work of Art as a Text and the Viewer as a Reader: The Dilemma of Young Artists and Critics

(Shoes by Vincent Vangogh)

Here comes another interesting question from the same young writer and curator, Bhasha Mewar. She says that she relies too much on text when she comes face to face with a work of art. The image is replaced with the textual understanding. When an artist asks her to respond and comment on a work of art she finds herself at a loss for words. Mewar says that it would be interesting to have a class named ‘Reading a Work’. The question is then how to read a work of art or how to interpret a work of art. Can an interpretation of a work of art possible without the help of a critical text or a theoretical template? Considering the number of art writing around us till date it should be natural for us to think that with textual help or not we have been reading works of art in one or the other way. If we have not been reading it, art historians, critics, art writers, gallerists, dealers, journalists and catalogue writers have been doing it for us for many of years. Hence, it is not advisable to say that ‘reading a work of art’ is an entirely new thing for us. Still the question remains: how to read a work of art? Or, in other words how to respond to a work of art?

In our life there are so many things that do not need a user’s manual for effectively executing those particular tasks and one of which is finding the breast of the mother. The child with some innate organic understanding reaches out to the breast and starts sucking. This could be happening because of the organic intelligence or the bodily intelligence. So is the case of sex; one really does not need a user’s manual though practice makes things perfect over a period of time as in any other case. Unlike suckling and making love, there are other bodily functions that the human beings have detached from the physical consciousness to the mental awareness. This happens with a lot of enculturation of mind and body. For example, we do not drink water from any gutter. We need clean water to quench our thirst. But at the same time, because we are scientifically aware of our thirst and the properties of water, we do not analyze our thirst and the scientific composition of water the moment we see a glass of water. We respond to the glass of water with our bodily intelligence (satisfying the need) and mental awareness (checking whether it is clean water or not).

(Call it a 'beautiful' picture)

Most of the people can enjoy a song or the sight of a flower or in that case anything that goes as ‘beautiful’. Though beauty lies ‘in the eyes of the beholder’ as the very beholding is a conditioned act of perceiving, the moment you add ‘artistically’ or ‘aesthetically’ to the word beauty people become a bit self-conscious. They have been conditioned in such a way that they feel that anything artistic that has been approved by the academics and scholars is beyond their comprehensive faculties and understanding. This is not because that the scholars have created an iron curtain between the work of art and its abilities to impart beauty or meaning to the perceiver but because the very idea that the work of art has a special purpose and mission, as in helping the people to sublimate their baser instincts, to make them better human beings and people with finer sensibilities and so on, they just cringe away from the given works of art. They freely enjoy those works of art that are mediated via popular media and are enjoyed by all alike. Mostly they find superficial symbolism more appealing than the hidden, scholastic and extremely private and esoteric symbolisms that a work of art supposedly carry within them.

As the structural linguists have pointed out and the post structuralists have taken it much ahead, anything and everything could be a sign and at once not a sign. A sign could signify the same thing only within a compatible visual/linguistic culture and it could mean another thing or nothing in another incompatible culture. As a sign has lost its divinity and finality, the text which is an ensemble of signs also as lost it final authority, precariously opening itself up for further interpretations and manipulations in different cultures in different times. A text in that way could create many subtexts that could show their allegiance to the original text or could exist far away from it. A visual sign also therefore has singular as well as varying functions in varying times and places. Hence, a work of art produced during the 15th century need not necessarily be understood today exactly the way it was understood then. While the meaning of the visual text of the 15th century remains the same within the image as well as the history of its visual nature including the histories of its maker and his times, it also opens itself for further interpretations and evaluations.

(John Berger)

Many believe that creating of a subtext out of a work of art or rather the reading of a work of art is completely a theoretical job which does not have anything to do with the human agency. This argument of reading a work of art purely in a mechanical fashion gives birth to a set pattern of understanding it as per the given ideological or theoretical template that is employed for decoding and interpreting the work of art. However, this reading also is done by a human being or a set of human beings sitting in one place or functioning from different places. Even if an Indian Marxist uses Marxian critical parameters to understand or to read a work of art it would be different from a London based Marxist reading the same work of art. It would be different not just because one Marxist has got advantage over the other by virtue of being in an advanced country but because the very intellectual and emotional make of one Marxist would be fundamentally different from the other Marxist. While the theory remains the same the ways in which it is employed in reading a work of art could be different; for example, the Marxian interpretations of the Renaissance and the post Renaissance art by John Berger remains different even if an Indian Marxist would employ the same methodology for interpreting the same works or the works back at home. Hence, it is not the theoretical frame work that differs much in the hands of each critic but the ways in which the very theoretical fame work is understood and employed. This, one would say, could be close to the Zeitgeist theory, which means the environments determining the birth of a work of art.

(an MRI Scanner)

I always give this example of an MRI Scanner results that the machine produces during the scanning of a human body. Some insiders in the industry say that the MRI Scanning machines do not make the ‘picture’ of the given part of the body which is pushed into the scanner, instead it selects the most appropriate ‘feed’ which is already fed into the memory of the machine. That means reading is a sort of selection process and this results into the selection of the closest approximate. There could be disputes regarding the veracity of this statement regarding the MRI Scanning machines as there are people who have already rejected the ‘feed’ theory. But in the case of reading a work of art, this feed theory could be applicable because a work of art, however intrinsic its meanings are or whatever intrinsic meanings that it has, there is no mechanism to leave these meanings out to the viewer apart from the clues and symbolisms that are part of the collective unconscious of the people who witness these works of art. These cultural symbolisms would lead to the unraveling of the those precepts attached to those symbols and also its history and the ways in which such symbolisms have evolved, shaped and even reshaped themselves in the process. That means like the structural and the post structural linguists say this symbolism shouldn’t be the undisputed one; it could function only within a given cultural context even that could be global at certain levels. When such symbolisms are resistant to meaning making therefore remain opaque jeopardizing the possibilities of making subtexts out of it, it is not what the intrinsic meaning of the work of art that is conveyed to the viewer but what the viewer reads into the work of art as its meaning. This could be a reading based purely on the ideas that are already been imbibed by the viewer/critic/writer, which in turn becomes the ‘closest approximate’ than the actual ‘picture/meaning’ of the work. This kind of reading is prone to making errors; but at the same time, despite this possibility of committing errors, it opens up a possibility of getting ‘closer’ to a work of art.

To put it in simple terms, I would say, reading of a work of art or creating subtexts out of the visual texts or even interpreting works intrinsic meanings is a sort of readerly/viewerly projection than discerning what is given as the authorial text. While one cannot deny the existence of the authorial text/s however transparent or opaque it may be, the ‘knowledge/feed’ of the viewer makes it viable to ‘reading/interpretations’. This takes us to a zone where as readers of the works of art we are expected to make some efforts to gain some kind of ‘pre-knowledge’ about the possible symbolisms that could actually inspire artists to make their own private symbolisms. The idea of original therefore is denied actively here and each ‘original’ work of art that comes to us carries some sort of the pre-existing models in its own forms or in its altered versions; one needs good eyes to discern the possible symbolisms behind the seemingly ‘original’ works of art. This knowledge is prerequisite in reading a work of art and that is why people who are not inclined to gain this knowledge prefer to avoid ‘art’ or revel in the works of art whose symbolisms are known to all without much mediation. But the story does not end there.

(Chakde India poster)

Even when the popular symbolisms are enjoyed by people, the possibilities of them getting further interpreted are rampant as far as a critic who is well versed in popular symbolisms and their influence in socio-political and economic conditioning in general. I could take any popular film poster to explain this. Let us take the poster of one of the contemporary mainstream movies like Chak De India. The posters have various permutations and combinations of the young actresses from different regions of India who play the roles of hockey players in the Indian Women’s Hockey Team. We have the picture of Shah Rukh Khan as the coach of the team. The symbolism does not need any mediation for the people to enjoy the meaning of those posters. They understand Shah Rukh Khan and as they read, hear and see about the movie in magazines, newspapers, television and radio they understand the story line too. They understand how the girls are related to the man and how the man is related to his country and so on. But in the hands of a film critic/art critic who employs an inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary critical practice to ‘read’ the film/posters could come up with different ‘readings’; for example one could interpret as the emblem of patriarchy and the critique of it. One could read it as the Muslim’s dilemma in order to prove his loyalty to his country; yet another one could see it as a feminist movie. One could watch it as a thriller. One could look for the editing and camera work. Another one could explain how a sports item is interpreted as a sort of war and aggression, and survival against all odds and so on. Perhaps, these are not intended by the poster maker (often they do) and nor are understood by the general public. The critic goes to it with a million of knowledge feeds and it becomes easier for him to read the film/poster in different ways.

(a painting by TK Harindran)

With a small exercise I would conclude this essay. Here is a small one foot by one foot painting, acrylic on canvas by Delhi based senior artist, TK Harindran. This untitled work comes from a series of works in the same style. Let us consider that we do not know anything about the artist and also we do not know anything about the context of the works of art. How do we read this work? As there is no preexisting literature regarding the work, we can only rely on the style. So we start by saying the following thing: It is not a figurative work. As it is not a figurative work, it is an abstract work. But suddenly you see the chance of looking at it and finding out some images. So you immediately correct yourself saying that it could be semi-abstract work. Then you keep looking at, you see there is a fish with an open mouth. Or is it a bird with an open beak? It all depends on your authority to exert and place the image in one place. But soon you find that it is a golden zigzag (a reversed sigma symbol?) placed in a vast area. Or could it be a landscape with a golden river winding through it? Or could it be a vast ocean where one could see golden symbol floating? It could be. Then you see the horizon. It looks like a horizon because you have already seen the surface as either land or see. Then what could be the yellow round with an orange spot in the middle which was earlier looking like the eye of a fish or the bird? This is the evening sun which is not seen in the frame reflecting on the water. This is the breast of a lady standing partially hidden. Is this stylized form of a genuflecting man? Does the artist have anything to do with the expressions of Rabindranath Tagore? See, a one foot by one foot work could generate three hundred words in me. Now if I was placing the work as a part of a series of work, don’t you think that I would have come up with around three thousand words in an effort to read this particular work of art?

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