The writer of the blog Standing Ovation, Seated, username artmoscow, has a gift for seeing stories in paintings and explaining how the nonverbal elements of the painting really speak to a viewer. I’ve learned a lot from reading his recent blog posts and also combing the archives.
People like to say that art can mean anything, and that every interpretation is valid, and that’s sort of true. But as much as art is open to interpretation, there’s also a guiding structure that at the very least narrows the path. Though the path might lead anywhere, there’s still a defined path, whether that path is straight and marked with boundaries and guardrails, or whether it is overgrown and meandering, or teetering on the edge of a cliff. There’s a story there, and that’s why art speaks to us, even if we don’t take the time to puzzle it out.
Stories crop up in a lot of places that we don’t expect – in a painting or photograph, in a song, or even in a well planned meal. With Thanksgiving coming up, I can’t help but think of the non-verbal associations that food calls forth in a rush a of flavor and warmth. Last weekend, my husband and I went to Wegman’s for its seasonal tasting event, and it was just delightful, not just delicious. Every bite is a memory – a thousand memories, all tied up into one bite of food.
Even though we supply much of the content that is evoked, the signposts given by the artistry of the work tap into different memories and tell our minds what to call up. There’s a story there, and we’re able to write it around the emotional content the artwork conveys, and find meaning.
But when it comes to work that leads with a verbal expression of its meaning, however, we still try to figure out how to make it into a story, coming back from the message so that we can figure out the emotional content underneath. We take a precise explanation of a concept and say to ourselves, once again: yes, but what does this mean to me?
My day job is teaching and studying philosophy. Even though a great number of the texts I teach openly state their message, explaining what the message means to us nearly always comes down to effective story-telling. Plato tackles this idea in his Republic; Socrates begins by laying the concepts out for his interlocutors plainly – and none of them really seem to get it. So he pedals back a bit, using models to make his concepts less conceptual, and then he pedals back again until the Republic dissolves into allegory, and even open fictions about the message. Its weirdly clearer that way.
There are a lot of implications to be drawn from that regarding a robust interpretation of Plato, but that’s a task for another venue, or at least, another day. The point here is that story seems to strike a mid-point between the expressive openness of art and the forthright precision of conceptual explanation, and this midpoint is where we step in to understand what’s going on.
Story is the lens through which we see.