Look above at the picture. What is it? What is it not? Try to speculate and interpret.
What leads someone into the experience of a work of art is partial pre-exposure to it, be that through word-of-mouth or the media. Pre-exposure means that, by the time an artist’s work begins to impact someone, their brain has already attached several ideas to it. The paint never lands on a blank canvas: the trailer, the reviews, the descriptions, the title, the comments, the advertisements, the artist’s biography and basically anything that influences your choice to experience a certain piece of art lays down the road to our understanding of it. It is nearly impossible to reserve judgement until after the experience has begun. For postmodern art this is problematic – the idealized capability of approaching multiple interpretations is narrowed by what pre-exposure has already subconsciously pointed to.
(The balloon you saw is part of an exhibition called “Artist’s Breath”.)
The brain is an anticipating maniac: even the tiniest cue can contribute towards our prediction of an experience and of our categorization of it. So, reviews, comments and descriptions can determine what we think of something before we actually see it. Paintings (and balloons) come with titles and descriptions, films come with trailers, theatrical plays come with posters and so on. By eliminating the element of surprise, some of the possible readings and interpretations are turned down. Art becomes less explorative.
I attended a live art platform recently. The organisers sensibly thought that it was a necessity to offer the title, description and hints of the source of inspiration of each piece in short text, which was distributed on the internet and to the audience in a leaflet. This work well as promotion but also transformed the experience. The spectators found themselves confirming knowledge rather than imagining connections between what they’ve been exposed to and struggling to rationalise.
(The mind responsible for “Artist’s Breath”, Piero Manzoni, conceived the piece under the influence of Yves Klein’s blue monochrome paintings.)
Of course, the notion that a piece of art could register in the brain and be interpreted free from prior knowledge is limited: we always have our memory of other works to which we turn for reference. But this is part of the subjectivity, part of why everyone will think of something different. Unlike the effect of art marketing, that serves to lead the spectator to a closed set of ideas, our individual subjectivity allows free interpretation.
(“Artist’s Breath” could be categorized as Conceptual Art.)
I discuss this problem assuming that it is the artist’s intention, often, to allow the receiver to explore the implications of his or her work unrestrained. This is not always the case: there are times when the bits of information surrounding a piece are included in its concept. The title, the artist’s biography or the setting stop being necessities dragging the work of art into overspecificity and complete it as an entity.
For instance, the pictured work by Piero Manzoni, “Artist’s Breath”, only manifests into art when exhibited bearing the specific title, as it has no visual significance – put simply, it’s just balloons. Here title is not pre-exposure, it is the essence: it provokes initiation of mental exploration of the ideas of irony and mortality that wouldn’t have been explored otherwise. One could argue similarly for the piece’s setting – even if it had been left untitled, the balloon placed within a gallery would still ‘drag’ viewers into interpretation. The work of art is then not balloons, but balloons in a gallery.
The same notion could be applied to works of art that are heavily marketed alongside their creator’s life story. For example, the pop album has often gone through a transformation imposed to it by the artist’s biography: think Lady Gaga’s “The Fame” and how it advocates the notion of self-recreation or Winehouse’s story of nemesis “Back to Black”. The two albums do not aim at these ideas lyrically, but they hint at them with a reality story served on the side.
It might seem sensible to argue for the minimization of any form of prior contact with works of art, since that would allow a more open approach to them. Still, it is futile to strive for that on a large scale: primarily because pre-exposure is inherent to the social mechanism determining the way the public is drawn to art and secondarily because it isn’t always unnecessary.
In the end, art is the last principle we’d be willing to control. These considerations only lead to changes in personal approach – consciously evading and reserving any judgements about what is exhibited or performed before us until after it is finished could be the ultimate stance.
Petros Fessas is currently serving in the Cyprus National Guard for another year and will read medicine at Cambridge after that
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