The importance of context in the interpretation (and enjoyment) of a work of art
Last week I went to 3 exhibitions/events that have allowed me to see the importance of context in the interpretation (and enjoyment) of a work of art. Note that I differentiate “interpretation” and “enjoyment”, although for many of us, those two concepts go hand in hand. But this is just a short post, so the Phenomenological Aesthetics will have to wait (you can read Dewey, Hartmann, Adorno, Ortega y Gasset, Sartre, etc, etc in the meantime 😉 )
The first one was the opening of Enrico David’s Head Gas. A by-invitation only event, Mr. David talked and tried to explain about his work being shown at New Museum’s small Studio 231. The first impression his work caused was completely corroborated by Mr. David’s own futile explanations of his “mostly self-portraits” “during hurricane Irene while on vacation at the Hamptons”. But the best explanation I heard of the whole show was by excellent art critic Nebula, standing next to me, who said:
He tip-toed over his own work
The second was Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW N.Y. Premiere at the Baryshnikov Arts Center.
The program explained the very interesting author/director Young Jean Lee’s intentions quite well, and sure enough, full-nudity all show long did not become a point in itself, nor a shock mechanism, but a statement, part of the discourse, and eventually proof that feminism is NOT about looks.
An incredible show, one of the most interesting performances I have ever seen on stage, with a powerful while subtle message… one word away from perfection (substitute “feminism” for “womanhood”, since they are not the same and most of the performance refers to the latter, and you have a perfect show-description-concept).
The third was the Guggenheim Museum’s 7 hour finale of Maurizio Cattelan’s “All”. Apart from the live 10-15 minute interventions by an impressive roster of commentators (Arthur Danto, Adam McEwen, Virginia Rutledge, Doryun Chong, Aquila Theatre, Marc Etkind, Francis Naumann, Nancy Northup, Jamieson Webster, George Vecsey, Donelle Woolford, Michael Rush, Slater Bradley, Matt Wrbican, Rick Moody, Aquila Theatre, Sarah Murray, Mark Taylor, Drew Daniel, David Lipsky, Robert Boyd, Stewart Home, Thomas Lawson, Tehching Hsieh and Sandhini Poddar, Steven Schwartz, Tracey Emin, Not an Alternative, Proenza Schouler and Harmony Korine, Matmos, Amy Hollywood, Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno, Sina Najafi and Simon Critchley, and Courtney Love), the center (and only) piece of the exhibit was Cattelan’s potpourri work hanging from the museum’s ceiling.
While a very interesting in itself, the exhibition’s catalogue was what brought everything into perspective. Cattelan’s work seems to be devoid of its power and poignant message (criticism or otherwise) when subtracted from the right context. Most of his pieces do not want to be moved, and need to remain in their original context, need to be shown where the surroundings add to the message, in order to be fully appreciated. Is that why they decided to hang it all together, as if keeping it away from the walls, from the museum’s frame? Who knows.
In any case, last week, through art, I learned of the power and importance of context.