“There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination.” Willy Wonka.
This morning in an interview Annie Clark said that she’s reluctant to explain a song, preferring to leave a little room for people to put themselves in it. This got me thinking that I have always believed an artist should never have to explain his/her creation. Unfortunately, we seem to be more curious about the circumstances surrounding a work of art rather than the piece itself. I wonder if this has to do with the profusion of media outlets, talk shows, etc. or merely a lack of imagination on our part that we are unable to engage our minds and spirits with the artwork itself unless we know more about the contexts which engendered it? Or has the glut of information at our fingertips led our collective imaginations into a state of entropy? When I first heard “Rehab” I thought it was a brilliant song even though I knew nothing about Amy Winehouse. But as her life shredded before our eyes the song appeared to acquire greater meaning–or did it? Did our fascination with her shenanigans turn the song into something it wasn’t? Yet who’s to say what a song is or isn’t, that it should be this or that? Would the song have had the same impact had it been sung by, say, Ella or Barbara? That’s hard to know except that there was a time when we knew little about the lives of singers (Sinatra was an exception) and measured our response solely by what we heard on the radio or, in some cases, saw on television. In fact, radio stimulated our imaginations in so many interesting ways, not just with music but also with baseball! Perhaps singers are the wrong example here, or any performing artists for that matter, because their visible personae are entwined with their work and seem to invite further forays into their lives!
But what about other forms of art? Playscripts, paintings, sculpture, music compositions? There’s a rather silly analysis of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata against the backdrop of his supposed love for some Giulietta Guicciardi. Do we really need to know any of these suppositions to enjoy the piece? Why can’t we just let it resonate in our imaginations and echo within the chambers of our own experiences? Isn’t that what makes art so magnificent, that we find bits and pieces of our lives strewn among the brushstrokes, notes, words, and images? And isn’t that enough? But then, does that negate the work of art historians or critics? Not really, because they are engaged in interpreting the artwork within the context of human experiences; everything else is peripheral and of secondary importance. It’s when the context overwhelms the work that we enter a confused state of artistic apprehension–when the life or the circumstances that created it drown the creation. The images in Guernica are a tragic and devastating commentary on War beyond the confines of the Basque Country for which it was created. The original commission is interesting and even significant for the people involved, but the rest of us can look at it and, unfortunately, find our own experiences mirrored there, for who among us today does not have a personal imaginary vision of war that is grounded in some reality?
Very little is known about Shakespeare; indeed the fact that there is no tangible connection between him and his works has led to all sorts of Oxfordian speculations about his authorship. What I find utterly beguiling about his plays is that it’s impossible to decipher his personal philosophy. With few exceptions, ideas and opinions he seems to endorse in one play may be contradicted in another; all he seemed to care about was the legitimacy of his characters, that they spoke their own truth rather than his. In some ways, it appears that this greatest of playwrights disappears into his work; he exists only in his creations. Perhaps this may have something to do with the idea that he saw no difference between theatre and life–it was all one; thus, he didn’t feel the need to be present in his art for his characters were enough; they were just parts of him–in all their messy contradictions. He cared only about their utter humanity, warts and all. Part of his artistic sensibility appears to be a deliberate attempt to blur the distinction between reality and imagination, to transmute what he culled from his English context and displace it elsewhere in a place that bore some semblance of reality (Denmark, France, Italy, an island, the fairy world, even England) but actually existed only on an imaginary plane. For him, defining the context seemed to limit the imagination. Perhaps that explains his universality.
And there’s a lesson there!