In a recent post, The Art of Communication, Julian expresses his puzzlement at film-maker Jean-Pierre Melville's remark that he would like viewers of his films to come away from them unsure whether they have understood them. Melville's attituded seems to me entirely comprehensible, but then Julian knew we would disagree about this. We have discussed it many times in the past, Julian says in the context of poetry, but somehow in my memory it was always in the context of beer.
Julian says that he doesn't like having "no response [to an artwork] beyond confusion," and I can see how that would be disheartening. There is, however, another way to look at it. Start with the premise (and I think one must) that with very few exceptions, artists are working in good faith. That is, they are trying to create something that is more than just a random hodgepodge, something with formal aesthetic integrity. If we do begin from this premise—again, the very few exceptions aside—the confusion is a place to start. And if the work does have formal integrity (and of course sincere artists may, despite their best efforts, create work that doesn't cohere) then there will be something there that makes us want to do a bit of work, to get up to speed with the references the artist is drawing on, to learn about where the work is situated in the history of its genre, to re-read and re-watch, with special attention to those pages and scenes we may have skipped over, dozed through, before. We may, that is, have to learn—and most of all, to think.
Julian claims not to like to have to think about the art he is consuming. If he says that is the case I can't contradict him, but I wonder why he does seem to like to think about things in general; the depth of his thought has been evident in many conversations (including this one), both on- and off-line. I wonder why he makes a special case of art, why effortful thought is only bad when it comes to movies, pictures, books, and music. It's particularly difficult for me to understand because I've always enjoyed thinking, and always feel rewarded when, thanks to a bit of mental effort, I begin to understand a challenging work of art.
Confusion can be the spur that goads us to thought, and thinking about a work of art leads us to a deeper involvement with it, an involvement that will give rise to a response richer, and certainly longer lasting, than immediate understanding. If we finish with a work of art having (or believing that we have) grasped every last detail it, well, then it's over. There's nothing left to think about. It's dead.
With this in mind it seems likely to me that when Melville (whose films I've never seen) wants his audiences to leave the theaters confused, he means that he wants to leave them with lots to think and talk about. The same is true with any form of artful communication (as opposed to utilitarian transfer of information at the bank, the post-0ffice, or the doctor's office, for example). After a conversation that aims higher than the utilitarian we would hope that the ideas we've batted around, the phrases we've turned, the wit to which we've risen, is not immediately dismissed with a simple, "I understand." We hope—and like artists, conversationalists aren't always successful—that we've left our interlocutors with lots to chew on and enjoy in the days, weeks, and even years to follow.
One reason, perhaps, for Julian's frustration is a notion I believe he has that the purpose of art is to convey messages. That is, he wants his experiences with art to be as utilitarian as his exchanges with the Starbucks counter-person. Some art, to be sure, does have more or less easily parsable messages, and as artists in general seem to think thoughts no more profound than non-artists, these messages are often banal: war is bad, friendship is important, love is difficult, life is shit and then you die, and lots of other platitudes that may be true, but are the farthest thing from startlingly original.
In spite of the banality of these messages, however, some of the artworks that convey them are entirely successful, but their success has nothing to do with the platitudes they preach, and everything to do with the art. That is, we're back at formal integrity: is the movie, the novel, the poem, the dance, the concerto, well-made? If it is, it's good art; if not, not.
If one feels that war is bad, one can communicate that message in a manner entirely artless: a black-markered peace sign, say, quickly scrawled on a dirty piece of cardboard will do the job.* This message might be as, or more, effective than any artwork designed to convey how horrible war is. It is not necessary for the message to be presented in a manner aesthetically sound for it to be successfully communicated. On the other hand, if one removes the aesthetic integrity from a painting, a symphony, or a poem, one ends up with non-art, the sort of confusing mess that, I guess, Julian takes a lot of complex art to be. The point is that messages don't need art, and art doesn't need messages, so maybe sometimes when Julian feels frustrated because he hasn't understood the message of an artwork it is because there is no message there beyond the aesthetic delight in a thing well made, as in the certainly messageless (but exquisitely crafted) piano-playing of Bill Evans, for example, an artist I know Julian admires.
Often the formal integrity (and perhaps the message, too, if there is one) of a work is hidden beneath surface incoherence. Why, I can hear Julian asking, would an artist want to obscure his message, or the aesthetic integrity of her work? Usually, I think, it's because these artists have realized that they will provide consumers of their work with a richer experience when they force those consuming their art to engage with their art rather than lay back passively and have it all spoon-fed to them. That this is the case, that active consumption of art is infinitely more satsifying than passive absorption of it, is to me so obvious that it hardly seems worth arguing, but Julian and I have debated this in the past, and my arguments have yet to be artful enough to convince him. Let me try another one, an analogy.
Last summer Julian and I enjoyed a climb in the Japan Alps. We enjoyed it, I would submit, because it was a climb, because effort was involved. If there had been a cable car, and if we had allowed ourselves to be lazy enough to board it, our experience would, I submit, have been significantly diminished—and the beer at the top wouldn't have tasted nearly as good. It's just the same with art. When an "artist" provides us with the equivalent of a cable car so we don't have to do any of the work ourselves, we are significantly less involved with whatever it is the artist has created. It may be a pleasant enough ride up the mountain, but the satisfaction upon reaching the top will be much, much, less.
So when Julian says he can't understand why Melville would say "I’d like viewers to come away from my films unsure whether they’ve understood them," my response is: "what's not to understand?" Melville was an artist; that is, he wanted to engage in something other—certainly more difficult and perhaps more wonderful—than simple communication.
* I do understand that a peace sign scrawled on a dirty piece of cardboard could be art, but for the purposes of this discussion, and to avoid the morass of trying to define art, let's assume that the one I've conjured up is not.