A pair of recent conversations have left me frustrated with what people seem to think a work of art can mean.
I fall in the Ed Hirsch school of meaning – a work of art means what an artist means it to mean, for the same reason this sentence means what I mean it to mean – and to my mind, a work of art is the specific effort of a specific person who is attempting to say something specific. By this, I don't mean that there can't be variety in what a work of art means. Of course there can. But I keep encountering people who seem to think that a work of art is defined by its ability to contain mutually exclusive readings.
This concerns me, because I think it opens a gaping loophole in the definition of meaning – one that basically ensures that meaning doesn't mean anything.
I had one of these conversations just the other night, with a close friend whose opinion I hold in high regard. We were talking about The Hurt Locker, which is just the most recent film I've seen that seems to want to capitalize on that loophole. Our opinions on the movie were split. I thought it dangerously glorified war; my friend thought of it as an anti-war film. I see what he's talking about, but in watching the film, I didn't think that a viewer needed to conclude that its portrayal of the war was bad. Indeed, given the film's text, it would be entirely reasonable to understand its message as this: it's okay to be a rebel in the army, your uncanny skills will be recognized, it's fine to ignore important protocols, and it's just peachy to leave your family behind again and again to fight in a war whose basic motives you never question. I'm quite sure that any number of macho soldier-types left the film feeling not challenged by it, but affirmed – if they wanted to see in it corroboration of what they already thought going in, they had no problem reading the film in that way.
I think this: if we want to claim that the film is a work of art, then this shouldn't be possible. It shouldn't be possible for one person to see an anti-war film, and another to see it as war glorification, and both of them be right.
My friend quoted Wilde to me to assert that just such mutually exclusive reads are what defines art: "When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself."
I don't think this is what Wilde meant.
Take another example: James's Baldwin's "Going to Meet the Man" is a damning indictment of a white sheriff who is ridden through with both bigotry and a secret attraction to African American women. It's a portrait of racist hypocrisy.
"Going to Meet the Man" cannot also be a benign portrait of a quaint Southern gentleman.
The text of the story cannot sustain both those readings. One of them is wrong. The story is more specific than that – art is specific.
But not so, these days, with movies. Indeed, I think I'm having this disagreement with people not because we actually disagree, but because filmmakers are actively striving to reach multiple audiences. America has become bifurcated – liberal/conservative, red/blue, whatever – and what we're seeing is the production of movies that are designed to sustain multiple, mutually exclusive readings. This isn't entirely the fault of moviemakers. Their first goal is not art – it's money. That's fine. What worries me is that no one thinks about that. We're all going to same movies, but we're not all hearing the same stories. The result is an empty experience – no dialogue. Everyone has their expectations confirmed, and people stop thinking and talking. The biggest blockbusters succeed precisely because they haven't said anything challenging, haven't in any way become specific.
If it stopped with movies, I probably wouldn't care so much. But more and more books, too, are bending toward the light of genre. Authors elevate genre with language. But the elevation must occur on the level of message as well. Movies, or books, that aspire only to reach the widest possible audience cheapen themselves – and say nothing, in the end.
"When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself." So what does Wilde mean? An earnest piece of art that says something specific should get people talking, debating, fighting. Disagreement is good. But disagreement that reveals that "critics" have not even perceived the same thing, the same story, reveals only that the "text" has failed to achieve to core goal of art.