(Art as) Communication vs. Expression

suspendedreason

Well-known member
There are two models of what art "is" I hear get bandied around. The first model, people say things like "All great writing is to an addressee," and "Bad art is by no one to no one." The second model, people say things like "Art transcends communication," "Art is the song of myself." Maybe a really radical version—which I've seen, I'm not making these up—is "Great art is by no one to no one"—it transcends the personality of its author, and avails itself to some humanity or sentience as a whole.

Probably both of these positions are flawed or partial, but I'm curious where people fall on this. Wolfgang Iser says things like, "Art creates its ideal audience"—that the audience doesn't exist until it encounters the work. I can't quite picture how that works out in the particulars, tho.

I know people around here like I Love Dick—or even if they didn't like it, per se, they remember it, they had a visceral reaction. That's good. That book is squarely to someone from someone. After reading ILD I had a big letters phase: Hugh Kenner & Guy Davenports (incredible), Gaddis's, Elliot's. But why doesn't the lit scene writ large get more mileage out of the epistolary form? That shit hasn't been popular for a quarter millennia. And why didn't Gaddis or Elliot's letters hit me the way Hugh & Guy, or Chris & Dick's, did? Suppose that's on me to figure out.

One possible angle is that true "to no one from no one" art is basically autogenerated stuff, found writing, Oulipian constraints, chance operation. Pulling the expressive choice out of it, killing the author. The result of this is that the work basically appeals to no one—you can like it theoretically but in practice no one reads past the first page or two of those types of texts, they're more proof of concept than they are readable texts.
 

suspendedreason

Well-known member
Also if anyone would like those Davenport/Kenner letters I'll post a PDF they're great. Lotta stuff on Pound, Beckett, Joyce—right up Dissensus's modernist lit canon.
 

catalog

Well-known member
You might like Joe ortons diaries spenry, maybe not, cos perhaps not as highbrow as what you've mentioned, but I enjoyed em when I read em years ago, even tho I never read or saw any of his plays. Good inside stories of making art, plus all the matter of fact descriptions of 'trade' in the London and Tangiers 60s. Just a decent document really.
 

catalog

Well-known member
there's a half-decent film and also a bio by a guy called john lahr i think. kind of a shocking story at the time. he's not very fashionable at the moment but the diaries are really good.
 

beiser

Well-known member
I think these are flawed ways of talking about the response a work elicits, and both are trying to reach for something grander.

There is in any person a set of associations that are essentially arbitrary—one of the clearest examples of which is the feeling you get when you put on an old, unremarkable pair of jeans and are reminded of who you were when you wore them. In most cases, even your closest friends won't have any real understanding of the milieu they refer to for you, and even if they did, their associations would be with the image of them, not the way they feel to wear. These are basically unsuitable for public artmaking.

Moving up the chain, you have private shared meanings—ones that have resonance due to a set of common experiences. These range from the extremely private—perhaps the sign is sensible to just a few people—up to the level of an entire era. Sometimes, what appears to be a private resonance may be made visible, or held to be emblematic of something larger, or can be on some level exposited for those not in the know.

Somewhere above this is what you might understand as an emergent meaning—it doesn't play out the same way every time, but personal histories rhyme. Every coming of age story plays with these kinds of meaning—the scene is different, the characters are different, the events are different, but some things stay the same always.

Ceteris paribus, one might want all art to be accessible to all. But pre-existing meanings in a person can be used to increase compression. In some cases, it becomes nearly ridiculous to try making a work both for someone for whom a quale is on hand and someone who doesn't have a concept of it already.

When someone says "all great writing is to an addressee," I think they're speaking positively of the act of trimming the outliers off the edges of the audience—you're less likely to write your romance-novel grand opus if you're preoccupied with the corners of your audience who have never kissed anyone—and of the act of a direction and intensification of unused sign-space in the text towards a certain core of readers with a few key emergent or private meanings.

When someone emphasizes the universality of great art, I think they're talking about the people who can do the ridiculous thing I just described—making accessible an experience that maybe their audience isn't particularly qualified to experience, through the steady and subtle bootstrapping of the associational space around it. This is the virtue of "To Kill a Mockingbird"—as a quasi-pedagogical text, it's skill is in rendering, consistently and resolutely, a certain experience to the widest possible audience. Because of the audience's presumed non-experience with the subject matter, novelty grants it a deeper impact than we might otherwise expect.

For any particular narrative, my instinct is that these are goals that are in competition—we don't experience them as such because there aren't a huge number of _obvious_ fault-lines in common experience which any given imagined public is presumed to straddle, and so the choice of rendering to an ingroup versus an outgroup appears relatively obvious. It's not coincidental that the most common place these ideas get brought up are around gender, race, national origin, and so forth—chasms that aren't crossable. But there is a tension seeking a response in an audience with whom the experiences are common, and the audience in whom they are alien. Sometimes you'll see criticism of a piece explicitly for neglecting one side of this—Slumdog Millionaire, for example, was "exoticizing" because it targeted people for whom rural India was exterior. Diaspora poetry, for example, chooses the other side of this coin.

It's not necessarily true that the best art plays both sides, but it can be quite a feat.

I think Gabe has talked a bit about how he thinks Netflixization has moved more art to something resembling the narrow, targeted model, and neglecting the openness of the form. You can also see him praising The Beatles as being multi-vocal in their simultaneous achievements in both the boy-band medium (think the Fan Club), and in experimental rock. There is something to say for the fact that the unbundling of these needs makes it easier to produce passable work, while destroying the experience of returning to an old work and finding in it a kind of unforseen depth. This is perhaps the case for Pixar over Dreamworks—while the Minions have a greater initial appeal to most children than Toy Story, there's something to be said for the way that unseen elements in most of Pixar's works (Cars can go fuck itself) will grow and expand as the viewer moves past them.
 

suspendedreason

Well-known member
I think this is fundamentally right but I'm gonna have to think about it more before I have anything interesting to say.
 

suspendedreason

Well-known member


I don't love this diagram, I wanna figure out a better graphical representation, but I think it's basically getting at the same idea that a lot of the book's "information" goes unsaid because it doesn't need to be said, for the given audience; it is implicit/assumed/connoted automatically.
 

suspendedreason

Well-known member
noting that Buck Mulligan is “stately” and “plump” is essential since the reader will not assume it as a default. Noting that Mulligan has two legs is redundant since it is assumed (implicitly conveyed) unless information to the contrary is presented (that Mulligan walks around the Martello tower further conveys, rather than contradicts, this default assumption). At a somewhat more complex level, Joyce mentioning that Bloom carries a potato as he leaves his house is information which the reader will not assume; carrying a key is, however, default behavior which the reader will self-generate and which needs not be mentioned; itcan be accordingly pruned. That Joyce does, in fact, draw attention (spend material resources of type and paper) to Bloom checking for his key — and failing to find it — is a deviation from the typical model of compression we would assume from an author of Joyce’s ability. Via this deviation, we can evaluate why this detail is included; we might even note it in our minds; and when later in the novel, Bloom, in a parallel scene, wonders where his hat went, and hypothesizes that perhaps he “hung it up on the floor,” we notice a pattern of behavior which is working to characterize him. It is not the having (or not having) of a key which is important here — it is that Bloom has nearly forgotten his key, having left it in a trouser pocket, and that this says something about him as a human being.
 

suspendedreason

Well-known member
One thing this all ties into is the "timely" vs "timeless" art debate/division ("hard choice," in the same sense of "impossible to optimize for both, and the pareto frontier is concave").

For the same reasons—distance over time is the same as distance demographically because the real dynamic is distance between cultures (and personal cultures are cultures too). Leave in the culture reference that has a precise, elegant association urban 2020 readers will pick up on, or take it out cuz no one will understand it by 2050.

I read a Carl Wilson (Let's Talk About Love Carl Wilson, not Beach Boys Carl Wilson) quote the other day: "Ranking lastingness above novelty is a holdover from an aesthetic of scarcity, predating the age of mechanical or digital reproduction." I liked it, but then a friend pointed out that our improved technologies of reproduction also mean that marginal (ie non-canonized) art has a better chance of being consumed by future generations than it did before.
 

luka

Well-known member
Staff member
A large part of why they are disconcerting is you can see them trying to figure out ways to simulate being human, trying to distill basic operating principles that would allow them to pass.
 

catalog

Well-known member
Theyve all just got out of college and switched from proper drugs to prescriptions, i cant be bothered reading any of the essays but they are all very polite and enjoy wondering about art.
 

luka

Well-known member
Staff member
Americans will sit in a room trying to work out basic mechanism of humour and then try and use that scientific formula to make up jokes. They won't sit there thinking up funny things to make one another laugh. They'll try and solve comedy with science
 

luka

Well-known member
Staff member
It's partly to do with capitalism, or capitalism is to do with that mindset, one or the other. Standardisation. Mass production.
 

catalog

Well-known member
Its cos they are young and nice and have grown up online as much as they have in real life. This is how it is. Dissensus is like a weird wrong turn for them that theyve fallen into by mistake but they quite like it anyway cos its so isolated its sort of interesting
 
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luka

Well-known member
Staff member
How do we go about integrating and assimilating this immigrant group into our closed society? Their ways are so strange and troubling.
 

catalog

Well-known member
you need to do a grime and jungle list, something easily digestible with good write ups. cos the music has to lead things, it always does. get off the essays vibe i say.
 
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