Sunday, March 7th, 2021
When people talk about the meaning of a story, or work of art it can seem almost as if they're talking about its soul. As if everything the work of art consists of can be condensed into a smaller, essential part; to be extracted by the discerning reader, whom it enriches. The creator, meanwhile, is tasked with creating the RIGHT soul for their art, because to give a work of art an evil soul is abominable, and a flawed soul regrettable.
It's hard to escape this concept (meaningful art is synonymous with good art,) but it's also hard to do anything with it. Any work of mine or of others I've looked at through this lens has either withered in shame or alienated me with its pretense and condescension. The problem is a lack of a good alternative; a different way of looking at art that makes it flourish. So for the most part I've spent a long time poking at different parts of art and saying, "Maybe THIS is where meaning is." Each time there was new hope and then eventually disillusionment.
There are plenty of different places where various people claim the meaning of art can be found, and I've considered most of the proposals the right one at some point or another. The misleading thing is that there seems to be better or worse here, at least at first, so when you're moving from one to another as you develop as an artist it feels a lot like you're getting closer to the truth.
Let me give a brief list of various "seats of the soul" for stories so you can see the sort of stuff I'm talking about (ordered roughly from least to most plausible): genre, plot, structure, craft, authorial intent/biography, moral/message, style, character, observation/insight, invention/experimentation, mood/atmosphere, and theme. Comparing theme to plot, it seems obvious which one is richer and which one more lowly, and so I thought for a while that within the top four of these or so was where meaning could comfortably live.
Something that characterizes this list for me is greater and greater vagueness and abstraction. The straightforward, near scientific mechanics of genre, plot and structure contrasted with the subjective and hard to get hold of qualities like mood and theme. (I think this too is a misrepresentation, but it's a misrepresentation that motivated me.) Partly I think this has to do with another equivalence that is hard to escape in certain circles: that challenging art is synonymous with good art. But partly I think it is just more comfortable for people who are invested in meaningful art to imagine it in a place that gives it more wiggle room; that allows it to somehow transcend the lowly, mechanical, physical world into a metaphysical space.
I think I was not alone in feeling this way, and in some communities of artists mood and theme in particular have, let's say, "won." When I browse games on itch.io, for example, and read the short marketing copy that game devs are alloted to best explain their game, a not uncommon template for them to follow is a variation of "A lonely game about forgetting." Mood and theme (along with what kind of thing it is) are the two things many, many independent artists choose to highlight. It's almost never "A fast game about cars," either. It's not enough to have a theme, the theme itself must be something that's hard to pin down. Even in more mainstream entertainment (whose lowly plot machinations often stand in contrast to the rich themes of smaller artistic works) this is increasingly true. Over the past few weeks critics have been talking about Wandavision mainly in terms of its theme of grief, and this seems like exactly how Marvel intended for people to talk about it.
I'm not trying to say that theme isn't real, far from it. Artists often think about themes when they create, and critics and even ordinary readers/viewers think about them when they experience the resulting work, and in neither case are they deluded. The question is: when you have correctly identified the theme of a work what have you learned? You've learned what the theme is, maybe what the author (or you) think of it, and if you're a critic you've possibly found an interesting angle for your own piece on it. Have you at this point found the meaning of the work, the soul of it? No. And it's still "No" even if you take a few other things into consideration, such as mood, message, or structure (just to pick three at random.)
Postmodernists look at this as a non-issue, or possibly as the biggest issue, I'm not quite sure. Either way, they believe they've explained it, if not solved it. Death of the author and everything that goes with it implies that meaning is always subjective, and therefore you can try to mean anything you like by a work you create, but you're never going to successfully imbue it with the meaning you want. In other words, meaning anything is pointless and every work that claims to mean something can be deconstructed and revealed as a sham that actually means the opposite. It's unclear where we're supposed to go from there.
Most people's instinctive objection to the postmodernist view stems from the fact that we very often (though not always) ask "what did the author mean?" when we're looking at a work and we can very often arrive at an answer that we can be fairly confident in. I share this objection, and I would add that I think their sort of knee-jerk nihilism comes from exactly the same conceptual problem that I had: the idea that meaning is a certain thing that is located in a certain place. They walk into a field of wildflowers assuming it to be a kingdom and when they can't find the king anywhere they declare the flowers a sham.
So what is the alternative view, then? If neither enshrining meaning as All, nor tearing down meaning entirely helps us... then what can we do? Splitting the difference isn't too appealing: it doesn't make much sense and it still centers meaning if the vital thing is to place meaning in its proper place. I have run into a few quotes by writers (specifically Ursula le Guin and Flannery O'Conner I believe, but I have been unable to hunt them down) that seemed to me to point in the right direction: saying (if I remember correctly) that stories are not there to be decoded or to have meaning squeezed from them, and that anything that you could say directly is better said directly, and is not improved by being wrapped in a story. Stories are what they are, and not something else.
(There are of course people who say that stories do have a meaning that can be found, but that that meaning is not something that can be said directly. I've thought this myself. For the most part, though, I've found that people are not shy about trying to express this unknowable meaning in direct language.)
I felt those quotes to be true, down to my bones, but still it was hard to see what to do with it. It's hard to understand something as one unbreakable block of stone, usually in trying to understand something we break it down into parts, which is I think where the quest for essences comes from. Essence is the ultimate part of a whole. When you live in a society in which meaning is derived from analysis, then being told that you can't analyze something is the same as being told you can't do anything with it.
Then about half a year or so ago I started reading the works of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and in his book Culture and Value I found a view of art that finally made me feel like I could make art again. Really I've written this whole long thing just to show you this short quote:
"You might say: the work of art does not aim to convey something else, just itself. Just as, when I pay someone a visit, I don't just want to make him have feelings of such and such a sort; what I mainly want is to visit him, though of course I should like to be well received too."
This is such a useful simile! (And it is supplemented by others almost as good, like when he compares art to a gesture.) In this view, suddenly, everything flourishes, even in regards to meaning. After all, when you're spending time with a friend you may be trying to get something across to them, and it may be important to both of you, but even though there is a meaning to what you're saying
the meaning behind you spending time together. And when the thing you're trying to get across becomes more important than the fact that you are there with your friend, then everything is spoiled.
When we set out to visit our friends with the intention not to spend time with them, but to convey something to them the context is almost surely either unpleasant or businesslike; say if you are in the middle of an argument and would like to get it resolved. But even here, between friends who intend to stay friends, the aim is not the argument for its own sake, but to find a way to spend time together in the future without this hanging over their heads.
Part of the beauty of the simile is it makes it clear how any and all attempted justification can wither. If somebody demanded to know why you were visiting your friend you probably wouldn't understand why they were even asking, unless they were accusing you of something. Thinking about art in this way can be a bit of a relief in a society that constantly demands justification for the art you make, either on grounds of craft, morality, innovation, or what have you. Maybe at some point this lack of need to justify is what was meant by the phrase "Art for art's sake," but somewhere down the line it started to mean "Art for the glorification of art and the artist" which brings all the same problems of justification along with it.
Another thing it highlights, and this may be my favorite part, is that art is nothing particularly out of the ordinary. We want to treat art almost with a religious fervor, insist on its divinity and separation from other human activity, even if we do so in mainly secular terms. Wittgenstein, however, says there's no separation (he would say "there's nothing queer about it"), and it doesn't require that separation in order to be meaningful, no more than seeing a friend requires divinity in order to be one of the best parts of life.
There's a lot more you can get out of this simile, but one thing it doesn't offer is a simple way of understanding art. If to reduce time spent with a friend to one quality would do a disservice to both of you, then through this lens the situation with art is similar. Mostly, though, I find this picture of art to be a much more enticing and welcoming one than alternatives, and it makes me excited to make art and frees me from the paralyzing responsibility of giving a work of art a soul. Art is still hard to understand, and it's still difficult to make good art, but thinking about it this way I feel a little more like I do when spending time with a good friend: I suddenly have the sense that mistakes can be forgiven, and that doing right is less a burden than a privilege.
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