Art as Thought-Provoking
The main focus of this week’s session of 7 Ways of Thinking About Art (Tate Modern) was the tension between treating works of art as catalysts for subjective musing and the idea that they might (or should, to be any good) have definite objective meanings. I presented these two approaches as at opposite ends of a scale, though these may not be mutually exclusive.
A key question is the degree to which works of art are like Rorschach inkblots: stimuli for projective interpretation, where autobiography, mood, and mental set of the viewer play a substantial role. Whilst it is naive to believe it possible to enter a gallery with an innocent eye, the mind cleansed of all associations and expectations, and plausible to think that seeing is, as the philosopher of science N.R. Hanson put it, 'a theory-laden activity' ('There is more to seeing than meets the eyeball'), there are still limits to interpretation. We can't see whatever we want to see - our interpretations are based on something out there even if they are idiosyncratic or whimsical. Nevertheless, context and expectation have a significant role to play, as they do in most aspects of our life (read this interesting discussion of the psychology of why we like what we like)
Many appreciators of the visual arts are content that particular works of art should simply stimulate a range of interesting responses, and believe that art should be open-ended. It is an orthodoxy amongst views of contemporary art that didactic art tends to be bad art - it is in ambiguity and the possibility of generating new interpretations that art's value lies. In contrast to this view, Alain de Botton has recently asserted in his book Religion for Atheists, that good art can and should be didactic, that it should teach us through sensuous beautiful creations, to be good and wise.
You can listen to a short audio interview I made with Alain de Botton which includes a discussion of his view of art here.
In the gallery we visited the Yayoi Kusama exhibition.
Kusama's art can be enjoyed as visual experience and catalyst for reverie, but some of it has clear intended content - it is deliberately about something, and it is possible to misinterpret what it is about. Some of the phallic imagery relates directly to her own fear of sex, as she has made clear in interviews. Although it is open to a range of interpretations, there are limits to what can be plausibly said about it. To interpret it, for example, as more aggressive and frightening than Louise Bourgeois's 'Filette' for example, would be odd.
In other pieces Kusama explores the concept of infinity (for a philosophical discussion of infinity and its significance, listen to this interview with Adrian Moore in the Philosophy Bites series). The remarkable 'Infinity Mirrored Room' invites the viewer to immerse him or herself in an experience of infinite regress which is also quite beautiful. This display of coloured lights suspended above water and surrounded by mirrors is suggestive of stars, of paper Japanese lanterns, and more. It invites a loss of self, much as Rothko's Seagram paintings do. Unlike artists who deliberately make the viewer feel tiny and overwhelmed in relation to the infite (see notes on Edmund Burke on the sublime for a philosophical connection with that tendency), Kusama in this piece has created an installation that is almost womb-like and comforting, while at the same time stretches to infinity, a Tardis-like play with space that expresses a fundamental warmth for humanity that runs throughout her work.
There is also a short light-hearted interview with Kusama here.
Next week we'll be considering the degree to which an artist's intentions should shape our understanding of the work. If you want to start thinking about this topic in advance of next week's session (in Tate Modern) look at some notes from a previous version of this course.