Monday, September 2, 2013

Perverse Meaning in Art

What does it mean? What is “the meaning of Tarot”? It is a simple question but vague, as demonstrated by the countless, extravagantly varied answers which have been offered. Writers in various branches of philosophy, in linguistics, semiotics, pragmatics, hermeneutics, literary criticism, and other fields have developed theories of meaning for assorted purposes. Often they involve elaborate, highly specialized jargon. These modern theories of meaning, whichever may be currently fashionable, are often appealed to by writers in an analysis of some particular text or image, perhaps a sculpture or a social custom, to divine its meaning. In most cases, common sense and historical context are rigorously avoided.

Historically, European art tended to be didactic or devotional. It had a meaning which was pretty clear to anyone of that time and place. There were, of course, decorative arts and embellishments, but anything significant was meaningful, usually conveying some moral lesson. During the Renaissance, mythological subjects were used allegorically to convey conventionalized Christian themes. Also at that time, portrait paintings by great masters became popular. This was a step in the direction of art for art’s sake. The popularity of landscapes and genre scenes was a later development. Occasionally they were allegorical, but in general terms their meaning was simply an artistic depiction of the subject, as with portraits. Modern art, in the sense of abstract or non-representational works, abandons even that meaning in favor of pretentious play. This simplistic path from Peter Comestor’s quasi libri laicorum to Umberto Eco’s “open works” is a useful outline for thinking about meaning in works of art.

Modern exegetes take many different approaches to understanding and misunderstanding antique art and its meaning. A great example is provided by this spectacularly beautiful genre painting, Woman at the Piano, by the impressionist Renoir.

To any reasonable person, the subject of this painting is rather fully encompassed by its traditional title: Woman at the Piano. For anyone who admires the (cloying) art of Renoir, this is a brilliant example of art for art’s sake. The subject matter and the execution of the work combine to evoke a pleasurable response. There is no need for complex exegesis; surely none was intended; and any such attempt can only diminish one’s understanding and appreciation of the work itself. However, not everyone is that reasonable. To exemplify the unreasonable, we will quote from the “Introduction” to James Elkins’ Why are our Pictures Puzzles? On the Modern Origins of Pictorial Complexity. His view of iconography, one in which anything goes, renders the field worthless. However, his initial example demonstrates why such relentless relativism is untenable and even embarrassing.

At first nothing could be more charming than Renoir’s Woman at the Piano, painted in 1875. The nameless woman plays quietly, almost dispassionately, her fingers placed lightly on the keys. It’s a popular image, and for many people it is refreshing and innocent: I can imagine the liquid motions of the pianist’s hands (or at least one of them – her left hand is just a blur), the fluent sounds of Saint-Saëns or Chopin, the flowery breeze, and the compassionate, fatherly eye of the painter.
If the painting is beautiful, it is because we can let ourselves drift into the swirl of a slightly meaningless reverie. If it is treacly or a little nauseating, it is because we cannot follow Renoir into the damper recesses of his feminine devotions. Either way, the painting is nothing but the purest, most sincere portrait of a certain sense of music, and a certain hope for what women might be. People who love Renoir also tend to be absorbed in the sheer luxury of it all. “The focus is so soft,” observes one historian, “that one can just make out that the piano stool is apparently upholstered in a flowered wool challis (or perhaps silk), and the diaphanous fabric of the dress – mouselline de soie, possible mull – is beautifully realized with its black ribbon banding and blue underdress.” If any painting is forthright, this one is: it wears its allegiances on its sleeve, and makes no secret of its happy, somewhat humorless pleasures.
Perhaps the painting is fundamentally a “dazzlingly painted” exercise in synesthesia. I would prefer to see it as a psychologically suspect, partly unintended expression of desire – more like the beginning of a confession than a dream. Other historians might rather explain it as a sign of its times: as a bourgeois utopia or an emblem of middle-class aspirations. Still others might say that it is just another sign of Renoir’s odd inability to make contact with the more interesting artistic themes of the 1870s. No matter which narrative we choose to tell, the painting remains fairly simple. It never loses its straightforwardness, even if it comes to seem a bit unfortunate or misguided.

In fairness to the artist, (and most of mankind), simplicity, along with other bourgeois sensibilities and aspirations, need not be the unambiguous insults which pretentious elites assume.

But art history has learned to find dense complexity in even the most simpleminded picture. Consider another interpretation of the same painting: this one from Birger Carlström’s Hide-and-Seek, a monograph devoted to exposing the Impressionists as political pamphleteers. In Carlström’s version of history, painters from Gainsborough onward made use of their newly liberated techniques to secrete hidden political slogans in their paintings. Each artist had different concerns, and they used their pictures as platforms, telegraphing their messages at unsuspecting audiences.
Renoir, it seems, was particularly obsessed with the politics of the Panama and Suez canals.

At this point, Elkins presents some details of Carlström’s various claims regarding Renoir’s Young Girl Reading, Portrait of Marie Goujon, and Umbrellas. We will omit them, but it is immediately apparent that something is wrong. Carlström may be insane, implausibly dim-witted or naive, blinded by an idée fixe or theoretical obsession, perpetrating a grandiose prank, or perhaps merely indifferent to any historical intent which could be justifiably attributed to the works(1). In that regard, Carlström seems like a typical Tarot enthusiast: it is difficult to be certain whether they are sincere crackpots or trolls with too much time on their hands. Can anyone be this pathologically misguided?

In other paintings Carlström finds evidence that Renoir was angry at Russia and Austria for their treatment of Poland, that he was upset at France for its liberal policy about immigration, and that he was disappointed in Napoleon III. In Woman at the Piano, Carlström sees the Isthmus of Panama in the houseplant at the upper left. One twig that lies at an angle is the “black line where the canal is to go,” and he reads the letters PAN and COL for the cities of Panama and Colon at opposites ends of the canal. The canal is drawn a little inaccurately, Carlström says: “the Isthmus of Panama goes a little more west-east, than what Renoir has put it out here”; but it doesn’t matter, because Renoir has written the essential message across the middle of his cryptic map: “TAC = BANG.” The entire scandal, Carlström says in half-English,

were to degager shortly. And so they were. From c. 1884 Renoir has now told about this project of Panama-canal and he and the French people are now demanding for an open account but in the next year 1889 so it crashed and many people lost their savings. TAC = BANG.
The same painting also depicts Russia’s relations with Poland, which Carlström calls “the Poland-Strangling”:

If we have a look at the light spot to the right just on the piano [at the far right margin of the painting] we can see the head of a bear and the text below it: R LOI A POL, what means RUSSIAN LAW IN POLAND. And if we turn the picture up and down we can also find on this head [i.e., the bear’s head, in the smudge] 19 ANS = 19 YEARS. Yes, in 1869 the Russian started the take-over of the university and then also all the other schools of Poland. That was to start an obliteration of that country and Renoir cannot help telling it over and over again in his works.
And there’s more, because what we have thought to be the music-stool is only another big brown bear.

The discussion of Carlström goes on, but the point should be clear. Both his observations and their interpretation are figments of his odd imagination. Carlström is, as Elkins puts it, hallucinating these details and their meaning.

It’s exhausting, reading these descriptions. And what has become of Renoir’s painting? Once it was a sweetish scene of summertime music-making, and now it is a combination atlas and menagerie, with explosions, strangulations, and festering boils. What was originally the dappled stem of a plant has become a map of Panama. The “flowered wool challis” has become an allegorical bear throttling a doll-like woman. The harmless signature, “Renoir”, has turned into a ripening ulcer. And what’s worst, it seems the interpretation has hardly begun. I can imagine Carlström writing an entire monograph about Woman at the Piano, turning it into an illustrated history of mid-nineteenth century Europe.

Elkins lists four problems with Carlström’s interpretations.

  • We have no independent evidence (from Renoir’s letters, from contemporary critics, from any other Impressionist or Postimpressionist painter, historian, or critic) that Impressionist artists hid messages and images in their Paintings....
  • It may also seem that his interpretations are just too far outside the consensus—too wild, too idiosyncratic to be taken seriously. They don’t connect well—or I should say, at all—with other historian’s concerns, and so in a way they are beside the point....
  • It’s a complementary problem that Carlström’s accounts are too different from one to the next, too unpredictable. He finds stick figures in some pictures and fully-fleshed ‘paintings’ in others. Sometimes he sees letters that many viewers might also see; other times he merely reports on lettering so tiny it does not reproduce. Although most of his readings are political, a few are personal or anecdotal....
  • Perhaps in the end Hide-and-Seek is just too detailed. Woman at the Piano may be just that: a woman, a piano, some music, some lights. Carlström may just be seeing too much, spending too much time looking. It appears that Renoir wanted to create a relatively simple, focused drama—there are no French engineers parading across the painting, no Russian flags flying, no newpapers displaying banner headlines about the destruction of Poland. The painting has very little in it, and even apart from the sheer implausibility of Carlström’s claims, it can seem that he simply says too much.

Anyone familiar with pop-culture Tarot interpretations will recognize the same problems. Whether the claims are traditional silliness (Egyptian, alchemical, numerological, astrological, and the endless other esoteric preoccupations, along with transmission by Albigensians, Templars, Gypsies, and so on), or more recently devised crackpot notions, they all lack supporting evidence. As such, they are beyond the interests of legitimate historians. The third problem, extravagance and incoherence, is almost always present in Tarot theories, along with the fourth – there is no end to the imaginings. It is fair to say that Carlström is either delusional or disingenuous, (Matto or Bagatto to employ the Tarot archetypes, fool or charlatan), and the same is true of most Tarot enthusiasts.

Elkins, however, defends even such indefensible nonsense. He admits that this seems crazy, but he argues that while Carlström is a striking example of such excesses, the criticisms themselves apply to modern art historians in general, and there are no criteria within art history by which Carlström could be dismissed from the fold.

Carlström might well be wrong about Renoir’s intentions, but he is not ‘wrong’ about art history. He is what statisticians call an ‘outlier’: a data point far to one end of the scale, but not off the scale altogether. He is less an eccentric, out of time and place, than a symptom of contemporary art history. The purpose of this book is to understand how pictures drive each of us to behave—more or less, with reserve or abandon, inadvertently or with full awareness—as Carlström does.”

Elkins’ book offers many interesting discussions of pathological interpretations. He is both amazed by some of the bizarre imaginings which have been put forward by art historians in the last century, and yet also sympathetic to the methods employed. To borrow Popper’s term, he finds no criteria of demarcation by which to distinguish between legitimate and bogus interpretations. Even the most plainly perverse readings, such as Carlström’s, cannot be ruled out of bounds. Perhaps the entire field is indifferent to the truth value of its claims, as are most Tarot enthusiasts(1).


 ✎ 1. Harry Frankfurt famously defined “bullshit” in terms of a speaker’s indifference to the truth value of what is said. Some things may be true and others false, but neither is of concern to the bullshitter.