Last week, I wrote a short post here about a conversation a friend and I had about "The Hurt Locker" and the meaning of meaning. That kicked off a bit of a debate, some of it here -- some of it my friend chastening me via email. A battle on two fronts! It occurred to me since then that this whole question bears on my own work more than I realized when I did the post. I'm publishing a book in August with St. Martin's Press called In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradise. The book looks at all kinds of utopian thought, but spends a significant amount of time considering Thomas More's original Utopia, from 1516.
Utopia demonstrates, I think, what I was trying to get at.
In the earlier post, I made the argument that "The Hurt Locker" appealed to so many audiences that it couldn't possibly be considered a work of art. A work of art, I wanted to say, has something specific to say, and if earnest readers view or read the same "text," and come up with mutually exclusive readings, then it can't be art. Art has got to be specific.
This is sort of what happened with Utopia.
More wrote Utopia as a bit of wit, as a sly criticism of England. He did not intend it to be used as a blueprint for an actual society, and some of the things Utopia seemed to condone More actually wanted to criticize (elimination of private property, divorce, and so on). But that's precisely what happened. Within More's lifetime, Thomas Muntzer cited Utopia to support his belief that private property should be got rid of, and Father Vasco de Quiroga used the book as a model for actual towns in Southern Mexico.
The important part is this...when More realized that his book had been so terribly misread, he suggested it should be burned.
Now don't get me wrong -- I'm not condoning book burning, and the truth is that I wouldn't agree with Thomas More about many things (indeed, he eventually lost his head because he refused to sanction the divorce of Henry VIII). But at least he recognized that his book was supposed to mean what he wanted it to mean. It can't mean the opposite of his intent.
Arguably, the world has benefited from the fact that this particular book failed -- spectacularly. But that's still no reason to sign on to a definition of art that embraces spectacular failure. Utopia is th exception. The far more common case is something like "The Hurt Locker," where a missed meaning means a film that intends to be anti-war is perceived as a sanction of it. Incidentally, Anthony Swafford's "Jarhead" depicts the same thing -- mindless marines using the "Flight of the Valkyries" sequence from "Apocalypse Now" as a battle aphrodisiac. Coppola felt the same way I do -- and More did. When they made "Jarhead" into a film, Coppola didn't want to release the rights to that clip of the film.
Fortunately, he relented. And you can't misread the misreading.