Interpretation & Love
When my giggling four-year-old runs over to me with a scribbled blob of paint on construction paper, yelling “look look!” and I instinctively ask him “what is it,” his grin fades and he stops giggling and he has to think about what to say. An unwelcome interruption by reason. He isn’t excited about what it is. He’s excited that it is. It’s about showing me and getting me to be a part of it all, not explaining, not abstracting the joy of his expression with words and reasons.
Recently I read an old essay by Susan Sontag, the titular piece from her collection “Against Interpretation.” In it I found a perspective that, to my surprise, has improved my parenting. She says: “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” It’s a bit of an odyssey to explain how I got from art to parenting, and here I’d like to chart the journey.
Sontag was a maddeningly articulate and polarising figure, and reading her essays reminded me of my old academic life. Back then, we all seemed to think “getting it” carried with it an air of exclusivity, of membership in a club of superior intellects, as though those who get it, whether it is a joke or an argument or an interpretation of a piece of art, hold leverage over those who don’t. Reading the essay, I thought: How often do we take this tone with kids before we hear their stories?
“Against Interpretation” explores the relationship between form and content, questioning how distinctly they might be separated. In the end, as I read it, like colour and shape, the two seem less separate that we imagined at the start. To make sense of this, Sontag talks much of abstract art and some artists’ deliberate attempts to obscure content to a point that only form remains. This, in a way, democratises art. How funny, from this awkward angle, is intellectual handwringing over the true meanings of words and ideas and works of art. Look at, say, a red canvas with a thin orange line struck horizontally across the middle. What does it mean? What radical expression lurks behind that line? Perhaps the answer is “nothing.” And so what if it is?
It’s an occupational hazard for a philosopher, but it seems to me I’ve been asking too many questions lately when really I should be joining in the fun. Interpretation is no prerequisite for appreciation, I’m learning. At some point, enough is enough, and we’re best to carry on.
On Wednesday I took a trip to the Auckland Art Gallery. It’s a lovely walk through the city, one to be savoured on a sunny morning downtown. I took the ferry from Devonport, where we live, across the harbour to the central business district. I stepped out of the ferry building, which looks squatty with high-rises sprung up all around. It used to be the most imposting structure on the skyline, back when gentlemen wore hats and tram cars ran through the streets.
I exited the building with the crowd and waited at the crosswalk with business men and business women and tourists in their polo shirts and camera straps and students with their portfolios and good haircuts and an aging rock and roller in his flat front cowboy hat and threadbare denim jacket and crocodile boots. The light changed to a green walk signal, a starters gun, firing our race across the city in all directions.
I followed an elderly couple holding hands diagonal to the west side of Queen Street and lost them when I cut through Britomart train station. The station smells of sweet Subway sandwiches and diesel fuel. The space is an an odd mixture of cold stainless steel chairs in a warm glass atrium. Here are some of the tourists with their large-lensed cameras, and the college students with their pink hair and takeaway coffee, the bankers and the professors and the rough-sleeping anarchists. A writer in their mix now. I can’t understand a word of the announcement over the public address system, too cavernous a space for the mid-range tones of a human voice, sounds bouncing off every wall and window and the corrugated lift shaft. The sound fades as I cross the door sensor and a glass wall opens and a fierce wind cuts across the station and ruffles my notebook pages.
I walked out and around the round tile fountain by the taxi stand and took a right down Commerce Street, and crossed just outside the American embassy. The next block over is a gentleman’s club and brothel loudly advertising free entry through lunch, not the same sort of business as a government office, but bustling just as well. I continue past a couple of shuttered fast food lunch spots and backpacker hostels and street prostitutes. The sun cuts across Commerce Street and lights up the white lines between the delivery trucks and sports cars. I walk under an awning shading the path with advertisements for gift shops, gambling rooms, and yoga studios. I cross through a day parking lot with an exit to Shortland Street. I had never walked to the top of Shortland, so I did this time.
Here is a higher end. Real estate headquarters, thirty nine stories of offices, top cut clothing boutiques, investment banks, empty cafés with irresistible lunch specials. It’s a street full of professionals and it’s the setting of a soap opera, yet the gentlemen still don’t wear hats. I’m stopping every ten metres to take notes, conspicuously interested in the massive slabs of nothing cropping up out of the streets.
At the top of the street is a flash car rental, a Kiwi Post, and a swanky art gallery. I took a split in the road up and around another hill and I lost my sense of the places and people and I started navigating by feel. The road follows the volcanic terrain, up, up, interminably up it seems. I stop to lean against a machine that dispenses parking slips, taking a few notes, remembering on paper, and a woman stops to say “You’re writing an essay. I can tell.” As she continues on I shout, “You’re perfectly right, you know!” And I won’t see her again to ask her how.
I make a right turn toward the university, which I recognise from all the trees and old buildings. Immature trees are cut into the foot path and cars cross from out of parking garages. The trees ahead and to the right must be Albert Park, I figure, and so it is. I enter to the right and just inside the gate is a garden clock that’s been there since 1953. The time is set correctly. The sun is high.
I follow the paths to a sculpture that I know can be seen from the second level sculpture garden of the art gallery. It is a line and a curve jabbed into the ground in a D shape. I’m tempted to think “I wonder what that is?” But then it occurs to me: it’s a line and a curve jabbed into the ground in a D shape. Full stop. This is my mission.
In the distance the university bell tower chimes. A swarm of nondescript people bask in the sunny breeze at the top of a volcano in the central city. Autumn’s closing in.
The Auckland Art Gallery is free to the public and I entered through the café patio to the mezzanine level where piles of large cardboard tubes and boxes had been scattered for kids to build with. Blocks bigger than them. The sun cut through the atrium and cast long shadows of the preschoolers’ sculptures against a wall beyond the main staircase. Someone ought to chalk outline the shadows and curate it as an exhibit of shape – “Shadows of Youth” (Various Artists, 2014). Instead, parents and caregivers take photographs that they’ll later share on social media and muse about what the kids meant to build. As if there was a design phase.
My simple mission: quit trying to find content in forms. See the form as the content – the colour as the shape. And let me tell you, this is no easy task, especially given my academic training as a philosopher, where “meaning” is deified to a point that we often trot out theories of it and worship the most purely rational results. Here I reject this pedigree.
A broom of fibre optic bristles attached to a wall, head up, facing out. A spectrum of light oscillating through the tips. I laughed quietly. How fun it might be to sweep with it. (Is this an interpretation, or am I simply happier for having seen such a form? Is this what I’m looking for? Is a search for this feeling a betrayal of my goal? Question after question, and I wasn’t yet settled down.) I read about the artist. He used to sweep galleries. Custodial work.
A pile of discarded metal objects welded together into a clump. My gut reaction: “I don’t get it!” Ah! The intellect eeking out its revenge again! Here are objects given new, unexpected shapes. I squat down and watch the outlines of the form against the white wall behind. Then I stand up and the forms move, changing against the parquet floor. So many ways a thing can be what it shouldn’t be. A basket. A scarf. A fluorescent lamp.
In form alone you see materials and shapes, not objects. More and more I feel a release from interpreted, rationalised life. I like it.
An angled grid of rectangles. Beige. Some cut into triangles. Black and red.
A crisp painting of a machine. A beautiful machine from the middle of the twentieth century. A portrait of a machine.
Next to the machine a portrait called “Samoan Woman In Yellow” (1954). Mostly triangles. Golden yellow. Solar yellow. Dusty yellow. I didn’t get a picture. I am amazed at how much a triangle can achieve. And I wonder how joyful might it be to look at a portrait without asking “who is this?” So I do. I trace back to my pre-interpretative impressions. She is a Samoan woman in yellow. She is a collection of triangles. She is paint on canvas. She is inspiration. She is beautiful.
That is enough.
Later I picked Noodle up at kindy and as always he had a new painting in his bag. I asked him, “what is it?” Ack! Hadn’t I learned anything today? He struggled to tell me, because it isn’t anything. It’s abstraction. It’s technique. It’s only a shape, no interpretation needed, no tyrannical correct answer. I backed off the question, and wondered. What benefit will either of us realise if he answers?
I asked him “did it feel good to put paint on the paper?”
“Yeah.” He brightened. Same as when I put words on paper. Then he said “and we hung it up on the rack and it dried and we built a school.”
“Built a school?”
“Yeah.” Brighter still. “I said we need a big boy school coz I’m a big boy!” And he told the story of arranging the big wooden blocks and the plastic dinosaurs and how his two best mates got involved and they built a gate so the animals wouldn’t get out – the animals? Then they rearranged the toys and cars they had brought over and lined them up for no other purpose but to appreciate them as a line. Counted out the cars, one, two, three…. Named their colours. Vroom vroomed them around and around. Gave them sounds, voices, stories.
The teacher said Noodle asked her to help round up the animals and put them in the new big boy school he built. While she helped she asked him “do animals go to school?” She said he stopped and thought about it for a minute, and you might as well have asked him for the meaning of life. But he gave the right answer, I reckon. He told her quite simply “well, they do today.”
And that was enough.