(This is Not a Pipe by Rene Magritte)
(This is Not a Pipe by Rene Magritte)
What’s the true nature of an art work? Is it what the artist anoints it to be or what the critic perceives it to be? Could an art work exist with multiple meanings and interpretations and still be taken seriously?
It is one of the fundamental questions asked by many artists and the question stems from the fear that his/her work of art could always be misinterpreted by critics and viewers alike. This authorial anxiety is legitimate as much as the interpretational freedom that the critics and viewers exercise. There could be a possibility of a work of art being over-read or under-read. When meanings are attributed to a work of art through multi-layered interpretative acts, the work is reduced to a mere trope that has nothing to do with the authorial intentions. So is the case when a work is under-read through negative deductions, stripping the work off of its strength to generate multiple meanings.
A work of art does not stand as a monolith. ‘This is not a Pipe,’ wrote Rene Magritte on his painting that depicted a smoking pipe. He was suggesting that a pipe is not a pipe where the word pipe does not stand in for the pipe in the picture. In structuralism, it is said that a sign need not necessarily be the signified. Through the act of signification the quality and intentional meaning of a sign could change. So the authorial intention may not be taken in the same seriousness and verve in a location/context where the work of art as a sign or a text does not signify the same. This heralds the death of the author, metaphorically at least and new ‘authors’ come to be through the creation of multiple texts/signs out of the given according to the renewed contexts.
(How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare by Joseph Beuys)
Joseph Beuys, the German conceptual artist lamented, how he could explain pictures to a dead hare. On the one level he was talking about the impossibility of interpretation in the case of a work of art for the listener could be ‘dead’ to its meaning. On the other hand Beuys’ act also could emphasis the fact the dead animal’s symbolic meaning was also dead to the stories or interpretations that he was making about the imagined work in his possession. We could deduce that here two narrative texts are brought into an impossible and improbable confrontation where both are dead to each other rendering the act of signification or reading null and void. In Beuys’ shamanic acts he freezes the meaning to its act alone and also connects back to the symbolic meanings developed around an object or act through the various layers of historic time.
We could pit Joseph Beuys against the Rene Magritte as they stick to two different methods of reading and understanding a work of art. Beuys makes his performances unique and no other meaning could be attributed than the autobiographical references and shamanic mysteries. In the case of Magritte each work of art in fact challenges the acts of making a singular meaning and opens up a possibility for reading and understanding it in varied ways. True that the autobiographical references play a major role in any artists’ works but as the works become texts and start their independent journeys through various cultural contexts similar and dissimilar to the original one it changes its complexion and could mean something entirely different, which however does not overthrow the authorial intentions altogether. They stand as one of the meanings, but not necessarily as the primary one.
(Painting by Rene Magritte)
For example take the seminal work of art created by Damien Hirst, something unprecedented in the history of modern art. Perhaps, Da Vinci had attempted at dissecting various animals including the human beings; his approach was purely scientific and no religious, ethical or symbolic meaning was attributed to it. The chances of symbolic attributions are considerably reduced when something done in a context even if it is artistically inclined but denied the chance of it being a work of art. In Da Vinci’s drawings of dissection do not enter into the symbolic realm. Hence, one could say that those drawings carry only authorial intentions, blocking almost all the chances of it becoming a text liable to be opened for the generation of multiple sub-texts.
Damien Hirst’s work is titled ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. A tiger shark was fished from the seas and was split into two to have it in the vitrines filled with formaldehyde for preservation. Other than the explanatory title no clue was given to raise it to the symbolic realm. One could contemplate deeply on life and death alike in the presence of this work of art. Too many readings came but none went far away from what I have just said because the authorial intention was such that it did not mean anything than a dissected shark in formaldehyde solution. The authorial intention perhaps was to shock the viewer and give a chance to think about life and death. There were many discourses regarding this work but all were extraneous to the fundamental meaning of the work of art.
(Dissection experiments by Da Vinci)
There are works that allow interpretations and there are works that block interpretations, that means there could be works as open texts and closed texts. Open texts have the tendency to move beyond the familiar cultural locations and assume new meanings whereas closed texts remain in one place with one meaning therefore gaining some kind of universal currency without interpretative symbolism. Beuys underlined the idea of textual collisions that dispel each other and in Hirst we see a one-sided bombardment of visual effect that could generate not meanings but extraneous dialogues.
(the Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst)
Authorial intentions cannot travel as fast the images especially in the contemporary times when transference of data and images is unimaginably fast. Images become open texts, almost ‘culture-less’ or devoid of a particular culture therefore liable to be interpreted according to the given contexts. Till the modern times, religion was the grammar that held the visual creations within the universal interpretative field. Modern times shook off the shackles of religion and the grammar was fragmented. Globalization and the proliferation of a homogenous market have become a new religion providing a universal grammar to the urban visual art creations so that interpreting the works has more or less become closer to the authorial intentions. It is always good to have authorial intention in the background so that the critic wouldn’t stray too far to make the work look entirely different from something imagined by the artist. At the same time it is not necessary that the authorial intention should rule the reading of a work of art, preventing it from being effective in multiple contexts in varied ways.