I have a running debate with my son Keith about art, and the recent Krasl Art Fair on St. Joseph’s bluffs renewed its intensity.
The debate isn’t about the meaning of art or if such forms as yard art, T-shirt art, and sculptures made from dented bumpers are really art in the first place. It isn’t about which painter or period is the most influential. Nor is it about what constitutes a craft versus an art.
No, our ongoing discussion revolves around what is called, in literary circles, point of view. In other words, from what perspective is the work to be understood?
For example, the current book I’m reading, To Kill A Mockingbird, is written from the point of view of a girl nicknamed Scout. Readers learn the story through her eyes; and there is a certain wonderment and naivete she brings to the telling because she is young, barely school age when the tale begins.
If Harper Lee, the author, had decided that Scout’s older brother would tell the story, it would have had a different feel to it. What amazes Scout could easily have bored Jem because of his age, gender, or experience.
I think artists bring a certain point of view to their work too. Maybe they want to study the effect of light on color or distort the human form or paint a flower that is so realistic you want to pick it from the canvas. But, whatever it is, they usually think about what they will create before setting to work.
My son Keith agrees that artists do not receive their inspiration merely from lightning bolts. But he isn’t particularly interested in where it comes from or what the artist is trying to say. This means Keith can look at a Picasso and actually “see” something, because he puts his own point of view on it. He doesn’t try to decipher what the artist meant.
As for me, I need to know what the artist is thinking, especially when I cannot recognize something familiar in the piece of art. Maybe Picasso was trying to show movement in a still life, something that seems like an oxymoron to me, or maybe he was trying to show a still life in motion. Either way, I don’t understand it; and if old Pablo were still around, I’d ask him in the hope of broadening my appreciation of different types of art.
I did ask one artist with whom I was acquainted what his work meant.
The framed piece that Keith made for me seemed to be a collage of things cut from ads in magazines. I wasn’t even sure which side was the top or why that necktie had a big red X on it. Did it mean he was through wearing ties?
I thought that if Keith explained the “meaning” from his point of view, I would understand his work better. I would “see” what he wanted me to see. Then I could branch out on my own.
But Keith said, “No, Mom, you have to put your own interpretation on it in the first place.”
“Why?” I argued.
“Because you should not be limited by the artist’s vision,” came the reply. “You should develop your own opinion.”
“I don’t feel limited by the artist’s vision. I feel liberated.”
“Limiting,” Keith repeated and went off to cut up more magazines.
I think of what I learned in my course on communication theory. To communicate you need a sender and a receiver. In between, there can be all types of noise that distract from the message. So if the receiver doesn’t “get” the message, then the sender has not really communicated.
I send you a birthday greeting but it never arrives because the postal truck it was on goes over a cliff. You, the receiver, did not get my message. Even if I have sent you a birthday card faithfully for years, the “message” you might receive is that I am now mad at you or that I’m ill or that I have no money. But you haven’t gotten the message I intended.
Why can’t we ask this of artists? I don’t say their point of view is the only one. Or even the correct one. But I would like to know what in heaven’s name some of them are thinking as they work on their masterpieces.
And I still want to know why that tie has a red X too.