Art art a picture of reality or a statement

Art throughout history has been interpreted with a search for meaning, “a
conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code”1
but on could say ingrained view simply a search for more when what we see on
the surface level is not enough and this subsequently takes away the sensory
experience of said work of art, Susan Sontag’s point of good films freeing us
from this relies on their sensory aspects, something one could argue theatre
can provide more of and has even more power to entirely free us from
interpretation. The main Greek theory of mimesis concerning art is still
present in the Western view today, the question of is the art a picture of
reality or a statement of the artist. Sontag believes this manifests itself in
the problematic defence of art which leads to form being separated from content
with content being essential and form merely an accessory.2
Sontag also makes the point that “the merit if these works certainly lies
elsewhere than in their meanings” in reference to the films The Blood of a Poet and Orpheus3
but one could argue this point is relevant to theatre wherein there is more
than just the performance text and its apparent meaning but also there is live
action, a connection between actors and audience keying into the secondary
framework something which could be described as a phenomenological approach to
viewing theatre rather than simply viewing the text meaning turning to what
exists between the performance and its spectators.

 

While we cannot go back to viewing art without it needing to justify
itself there are certainly works of art which do have a quality to them which
leads them away from having to justify themselves and from constant interpretation,
Sontag also holds this belief having written “Ideally it is possible to elude
the interpreters in another way by making works of art whose surface is so
unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that
the work can be just what it is.” This ideal of eluding the interpreters, the
spectators can arguably be backed up with a multitude of plays however a
production I recently saw Let the Right
One In (December 2017) by The National Theatre of Scotland with Marla Rubin
Productions Ltd and Bill Kenwright in the Abbey Theatre yields a prime example.
The highly choreographed piece rarely had just one thing happening on stage
there was a constant combination of movement, speaking, sound or light all of
which were polished and quick moving almost chaotic at times. This being the
nature of the play barely left room for one to reflect on the why but rather
had seemed to be aiming towards having the concentrations on just simply what
was happening at that moment. The attendance on that night could be see turning
their heads from place to place to catch glimpses of the different pieces of
the total stage world such as Eli climbing a tree in the background or an actor
walking through the woods. There was something other than just the content of
the piece much like Sontag referenced how cinema has camera movement, cutting
and composition4 Let the Right One In had a continuous
soundscape, complex and precise movements and a multitude of layers to what was
happening on stage. Real art is viewed as having the capacity to make the
onlooker nervous5
but this is often taken away when the piece is interpreted and boiled down to
simply what is the perceived meaning making the piece manageable and no longer
as effective before. This translates particularly well to theatre for if we
take away the bodied experience to replace it with interpretation only then
what is left for drama is more than information it is composed of more visible,
exposed components.

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Phenomenology, a central concept in the directness and interpretation of
theatre is written about by Bruce Wilshire as a “systematic attempt to unmask
the obvious.”6 He
writes as a follow up on Edmund Husserl’s first categorisation of phenomenology
as a method to reveal the meaning of things and events beyond just being aware
of only what is needed for survival or short-term interest but rather to see
their connections in the context within they are found. A method as such when
employed sufficiently, flexibly and imaginatively can bring about the essential
characteristics of theatre art, the essence of theatre.7
Again Sontag’s point of good art always having a directness that stops the want
to interpret is applicable, while phenomenology is looking at the art to find
meaning it is not a reduction of the piece to just its meaning but actually
looking at how this piece conveys any sense of meaning, emotion at what sign
carriers bring to characters as a whole. Wilshire states that if theatre is
informative, it does not merely illustrate what we already know one could argue
how could a piece be informative if we do not interpret it but as Sontag points
out art has much more to offer than its meaning alone8
especially in theatre. If one is to look at a performance as informative it
should offer more than what we know as basics and make us aware the beyond much
like Husserl’s methodology, if this is the case of an informative production
then a recent one I have seen does not fit the criteria. A new version of The Red Shoes written by Nancy Harris in
the Gate Theatre fell short of Sontag’s making of a production that eludes the
interpreters nor did it have the informative factor of illustrating more than
what we already know. As a member of the audience it seemed to me that many
were disengaged by what was happening on stage as time went on more talking
could be heard and more people checking their phones as well as this the
audience participation felt and sounded less enthusiastic as the piece moved
from a rapid, clean movement based interpretation piece into a slower storyline
that did not seem to offer any climactic moment for the audience. With
seemingly less heightened reactions, it also seemed that people were sitting
back rather than constantly looking for what was unfolding.

 

Another interpretation of phenomenology comes from Bert O States who saw
its task as “to keep … the life in theatre.”9
Fortier’s take on this is that phenomenology is “not concerned with the world
as it exists but how the world appears to the humans who encounter it”, how it
is perceived, what is it like to be in. This itself shows the difference
between the pictorial arts and theatre which has a unique relationship with the
presentation of lived experience to the spectator which appears to the senses
as something seen, heard, even touched, tasted or smelled.10
Such sensory affects are central to both phenomenology and theatre productions
in conveying their message, they also influence the ‘directness’ of art as
spoken about by Sontag. The previously mentioned Let the Right One In heavily utilised sound to appeal to the audience’s
sense, the soundscape was almost continuous throughout including before the play
had technically begun and during the interval. A noticeable point in this
soundscape was the eerie crescendo of what felt to be in-between music and pure
screeching or static creating a build up to an intense scene that during, the
lack of sheer volume of notice was then physically noticeable. The production
which had multiple elements of movement especially repeated movement among the
mysterious people in the woods behind all worked seamlessly with the sound
behind and almost gave a sense of awe but keeping its precise nature deterring
interpreters. The Red Shoes production
spoken about above had a combination of both live music played on a piano
layered with music that appeared to be from a pre-recorded backing track and
the live singing voices of the performers. The combination was unified with
rapid momentum as Sontag wrote about and so appealed to the senses and had the
traits to makes these musical scenes less desirable to dissect and interpret.

The itch to interpret Sontag wrote about comes from experiencing what we
are to take as reality when in fact what happens on stage in front of us is not
real but also ‘not not real’, the audience and actors key into the secondary
framework however this pausing to interpret creates a construction when one
group namely the actors are in the secondary framework but the other namely the
spectator has exited this framework. A construction like so was existent into
the production of Let the Right One In as
its continuous mode of performance contrasted with the audience’s moments of
primary framework such as when they first entered the theatre and the play had
not technically begun but even still there were actors moving across the stage
and the voice over warning of emergency exits and other basic and essential
pieces of information were all said in the character of the town sheriff.  This continuous mode seemed to make the audience
hyper alert after noticing what was happening around them all throughout
thereafter including the interval, something one could say put a damper on the
itch to interpret as the mind was constantly preoccupied. The Red Shoes had clear and at times drastic switches from all
modes: representational, collaborative and self-expressive, all of which were
also present in Let the Right One In
but executed in a less obvious way. A piece heavily influenced by dance11
The Red Shoes of course had a focus
on the self-expressive mode however the unification of the modes seemed jarring
to the audience, noticeably the switches to collaborative which the audience on
the night I attended seemed almost put off by and were unexpecting of each time
they were called upon to take part, resulting in what sounded and felt like a
lacklustre participation. The loss of momentum in the world quality of this
play took away from its directness and arguably invited interpretation and a
search for more meaning beyond what was presented. It is evident through both
recent productions and multiple works on phenomenology in theatre that Susan
Sontag and her view of good films having a directness that sets us free of the
itch to interpret is applicable to theatre as a work of art that moves beyond
appealing to few senses but to almost all.