Subjectivity in Art and Literary Criticism

ART IS DEFINED AS MUCH BY THE BEHOLDER AS IT is by the artist. Their combined efforts serve in its completion. Before it’s seen it’s incomplete. The sound a falling tree makes in the woods with no one there to hear it is each unheard piece of music, each book you’ve never read, each painting you haven’t seen. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is meaning and understanding. People complete art in their affirmation of its value. Civilizations are defined more by artists and poets than their kings and queens; as kings and queens are defined by artists and poets. The same is true in the interpretation of art…

In a broad sense, I don’t distinguish literature, music, painting—or any form of true expression—from art, although where I’m from art is usually reserved for visual arts, paintings, sketches, etc. Not all paintings, songs, or stories are art; rather all forms of expression are capable of becoming art when handled properly. And, to distinguish, how do we define art?

To me, art is anything that expresses or shows depth of feeling, passion and sincerity; something that pulses, something that breathes, something that bleeds. The depth of expression is usually the measure of its quality. It’s about emotion, in most cases, but expression isn’t limited to emotion. For example, art can express confusion. Confusion isn’t a traditional emotion, but it can be an emotional state. Expressing confusion is possible, as can be seen in Picasso’s Guernica. It has the quality of emotional detachment, a reservation to it. There are so many ideas, so much to see; the painting is drunk on its own drunkenness, out of control. This technique of echoing or reinforcing a theme is common. With a painting that demands a wandering eye, when you don’t know what to look at, in a sense Picasso takes you to that confusing day in Guernica. None of those who died were in control. They ran from one fire to another.

The bombing of Guernica (26 April 1937) was an aerial attack on the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, carried out at the behest of the Spanish nationalist government by its allies, the German air force’s Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria.

Picasso painted scenes he may not have understood and his great gift and innovation was painting material not found in nature, but in artistic exaggeration based on life, if loosely, found only in the imagination—where all great art begins.

The struggle once committed to a canvas lives forever. This is hope for the hopeless, a position in the mind of those who honor them. Paint frames them in a moment of horror, the figures paused. Time is broken; in that pause Picasso’s brush does for those who died in Guernica what Antigone did for the honor of her dead brother, Polyneices in Sophocles’ best play, Antigone.

Antigone did it with her life, Picasso with his brush. The baying horse, screeching with its neck crooked out of joint, a spear in its chest from which spills indecipherable news columns—a savage critique on journalists who profit by such horror. But there is hope, a candle, soft-light in the soft hands of an, above Picasso’s pyramid of death. This is in thematic opposition to the electric lightbulb’s imitation light; the electric eye that lights the scene.

Picasso’s mistress took several pictures of Picasso at work on Guernica and the painting becomes more and more confused and less optimistic as it progresses.

Earlier drafts showcased a socialist fist thrust upward in defiance. This sense of winning the fight, if only morally, disappeared with many stark, more wistful expressions. It seems as though Picasso was being drained as he stood before such noise, such horror and panic. The eyes are tricked to follow those disjointed lines; the lines that lead upward to the orgasm, the consummation of imagination and technique.

The reception was lukewarm when Geurnica was unveiled at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne at the world fair in Paris in 1937. It’s a disheartening pattern when one considers some of the most beloved paintings we have from pre-modernity may have debuted to little or no success at all and, possibly, even to scorn and disgust.

Historically Guernica has been interpreted as an expression of protest, pain, and chaos. I think it was a chaotic expression of pain as protest. Many things are made of the light, as the lightbulb could be symbolic in a literary sense. The Spanish word for lightbulb is bombilla, which is similar to the word for bomb, bomba. The perforation on the palms suggest the stigmata of Jesus; a likely homage to Francisco Goya’s 1814 painting The Third of May 1808, inspired by the Spanish resistance to Napoleon. [It] is lit by a box lantern on the ground at the feet of the firing squad, lighting them from below and casting their expressions in shadow. At the same time the on-canvas light source illuminates the line-up of riflemen and also serves as a gesture, a means to guide the eye from the muzzle of the rifles to the background to create depth and breathing room for the characters depicted.

In matters of subjective art, two reasonable questions arise: by what criteria is the quality of someone’s interpretation judged? And more important is a nonsense question with an accidental sort of wisdom. If the author of a painting or a polonaise or waltz intends no meaning at all, is there an objective meaning? Is it even possible? Keep this in mind: Jesus is a prominent figure in the lives of hundreds and hundreds of millions of people, and a good percentage of those pronounce it as it’s spelled in English. Now this is hilarious:

Jesus is a mistranslation (the idea of the virgin birth is the result of mistranslating ‘young woman); the letter J isn’t in the Greek or Hebrew alphabet and the Hebrew name is Yeshua. The English spelling is Joshua. Iesous is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name and its English is Jesus. That’s right: half of the world of Christendom is mispronouncing their God’s name. If something as important as, you know, the name of whomever you worship, can be muddled, how are we supposed to get through history when the game is Chinese Whispers?

Some artistic license is incapable of finding its way through translation.  The first thing that comes to mind is the disparity in how obscenity is judged. One of the most unique approaches to convey oneself is van Gogh’s self-portrait as a pair of boots, suggesting that the character of a person can be revealed through their possessions.  Van Gogh did this many times throughout his career, painting absence and thus loss and loneliness; he did it with chairs and villages, empty bottles and boots.

It’s a good idea; and a man with such worn out boots is a man who often walks, and anyone who walked as much as van Gogh spent a lot of time alone, lost in thought, living the life of the mind. So he’s a thoughtful person, and the shoes are sleepy looking; he’s forever tired, an insomniac with some nervous malady. In many parts of the world, receiving that painting, with knowledge of what it is, would give anyone who received it joy. Even if they didn’t get van Gogh, or thought that he couldn’t paint because he didn’t try to be a camera, they would understand its value.

Variations in opinions on art are explicable only in terms of individuals, their history, and their culture. Sometimes a painting or a song or smell can take you to another place, or bring images and other ideas, independent of the work to the fore, some memory on the tip of the tongue you can’t quite name. It could be a sort of nostalgia, an effortless remembrance. In this fashion a work of art can become meaningful in a way independent of the artist’s idea and its representation.

I have a coffee-table book on the collected works of the Dutch painter Vermeer. On the cover is perhaps Vermeer’s most famous work, Girl With a Pearl Earring. For me, this painting has become permanently associated with a friend of mine; since the book was a gift, and because I once attempted to similarly depict her, she has become attached to the painting in that unique, Proustian way.

Because of time and habit, the painting itself has all but lost its intended emotional appeal; I still appreciate its beauty, its soft (what light?) angelic glow. But now when I see that face, I imagine a friend; a friend whose company I would much prefer to the portrait to which she is now inextricably attached. This could be a unique example of Pavlovian conditioning wherein instead of the result being conditioned fear it is in this instance conditioned love. The painter could have never foreseen this association and this type of meaning is by its very nature singular.

Subjectivity means that meaning is not set or definite. It means different things to different people. That is the positive aspect of subjectivity the interpretation of art. This is how we connect the dots we cannot see and, indeed, may not even be there. It may have a definite meaning to the author, but it is ambiguous; and this is what makes art great, the ability to connect to it personally, to understand and, in the process, learn something about ourselves, about who we are, and what made us that way. The interpretation of a work of art often says as much about the interpreter as it does about the artist.

It’s fun to speculate. It’s fun to talk about art and literature with your friends. That is part of the magic of the creative process, and a great thing for form and style—as ambiguity is purposed for varied interpretation.

Some authors not only have vague messages, they themselves have no true intention or meaning to consciously convey. The postmodern movement in art and literature stretched the unconscious onto the page and all was open to interpretation. Consider the varied analyses of Samuel Beckett’s tragic/comic play Waiting for Godot. There are different readings of the same material from every angle; from Freudian and Jungian psychosexuality and behaviorist studies to political Christian homoerotic interpretations. Anything can mean anything if you mold it long enough, but the intentional scouring for ‘deeper’ or ‘hidden’ meaning / subtext has a purpose: to bring it into your world, to make it mean something to you, right or wrong; it doesn’t matter. Words and colors are suggestions more than rules, and the invitation is not to accept or out-right believe, but to think, to imagine. This is the value of subjectivity; a definitive meaning closes the viewer and the 4th wall, leaving us detached and unattached. And, while it’s important to think about the implications and suggestions in a work of art, the imagination is a more creative and expansive capacity.

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