Ask me to interpret anything – the cause of events, people’s motivations, the symbolism in a novel or a dream – and I usually opt for all the explanations that seem supported. To suggest anything else has always seemed overly simplistic to me, and so false as to be a distortion (in which case, why offer the interpretation?). For the same reason, I’m always vaguely irked by the efforts to impose banal interpretations on merchandise sold to the general public.
You know the kind of thing I mean. Buy a brooch with a Celtic knotwork design, and you’re apt to be handed a little card that insists that the design signifies the general connectedness of life. A trefoil design is a reference to the Christian Holy Trinity, and a dog faithfulness, and a ship the journey of life. Or something like that – I may be wrong on the particulars, because they’re usually too banal to remember, but you get the general idea.
People do the same thing with Northwest Coast art. The other day, for instance, I received in the mail a few pages from the gallery where I had bought a rattle by Ron Telek that depicted an eagle – the rattle – transforming into a wolf – the base. On one page, the gallery pointed out that Telek’s work, while derived from Nisga’a tradition, was intensely personal in nature. On another page, I got canned explanations about what an eagle and a wolf supposedly meant in traditional art. In other words, one information sheet clearly pointed out the inapplicability of the other.
As for the explanations themselves, each was a hundred words of meaninglessness. In brief, though, the eagle was described as being all about nobility and the wolf about savagery. To which I can only reply: Really? To all artists in all first nations? When the wolf was a clan or family crest in many cases?
And let’s not even begin to delve into the fact that no artist of any merit starts off with nothing but symbolic meanings in mind, any more than any great novelist starts off intending to write The Great Novel of Our Time. In both cases, they simply create, and leave the meaning to the critics.
But, besides the obvious falseness of such explanations, what really annoys me is that, by being handed such explanations, people are being mislead. They are encouraged to think that art is a simple and straightforward, and important only for its so-called meaning. Even worse, instead of seeing a work for themselves, they are being told what to think. And, once they are told what to think, they may never see anything else.
I suppose that there is a demand for such simple explanations. After all, many people desire simple explanations and world-views. But I don’t see why anyone should pander to this desire, especially when, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it’s a distortion of reality. Why encourage a delusion?
Look, I want to say when faced with such explanations. Life isn’t like that. It’s convoluted, and complicated, and messy. And, rather than do violence to your powers of perception, why not just accept the general untidiness and learn to enjoy it? You miss so much by denying the complexity.