In 2014, I wrote about the Intentional Fallacy, a term of literary criticism. (6/5/14) The theory states that to understand a work of art, nothing is relevant except the piece itself. Knowledge of the artist’s childhood or what he or she ate for breakfast has no bearing on interpretation. As the artist is incapable of being fully conscious of the influences that affect a work, speculation about those influences serves no purpose.
Susan Sontag, an influential art and film critic, now deceased, wrote two seminal essays that took the concept farther: The New Sensibility and Against Interpretation. In these, she explained works, like Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup can, have no meaning except to force the viewer to pay attention to the object itself. The experience is all. But, as essayist Rochelle Gurstein points out, if the object is the experience, then all experience is art. What about the table upon which the soup can stands? Or the entire kitchen? (“W(h)ither the New Sensibility,” by Rochelle Gurstein, The Baffler, no 31, pg. 149.)
Having majored in philosophy, these questions are familiar to me, so I don’t get sucked into the dilemma. With or without the artist’s intention, defining art is impossible, so I’ve fallen back on the novice’s declaration: “ I know what art is when I see it.” Certainly, I am suspicious of Sontag’s view. The object is not all there is. The object is the means by which the artist sends a message to the viewer. What occurs between the creator and the audience is akin to the gap between Michelangelo’s God as he reaches out with a finger to imbue Adam with life. Art lies in the gap, the mystical attempt at communion in a world where personal history colors what we observe and makes absolute communication impossible. Call art a leap of faith between the sender and the receiver, the hope that some level of understanding survives the void and makes a connection, however imperfect.
In a recently taped edition of Just Read It, my co-host, Susan Stoner, disagreed with my assessment that Kazuo Ishiguro’s Buried Giant Is a work of art. She found the plot simplistic and banal. That the story is simple, I agreed. It is simple in the way a seed is both simple yet capable of complex expression as a flowers or a tree. My friend frowned at my words and her reaction set me to wondering if I might be imposing, rather than deriving meaning. Was I, like the naked king’s subjects, unwilling to admit I saw no clothes?
Susan and I continued our debate well after the camera stopped rolling. That alone, in my lexicon, is hint enough that the book had merit. Though it affected us in different ways, it did affect us, setting our little grey cells working. Perhaps that is the intention of art, after all: to dip our fingers into the surface of a still pond and set the ripples flowing.