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Meaning Schmeaning

July 15, 2008

As I read over Tom Lubbock's interesting piece in today's UK Independent newspaper about society's obsession with explaining works of art, I couldn't help but be reminded of my own recent attempts to impose meaning on an approach to a theatre production which I don't fully understand.

I'm currently involved in what's being billed as a "fusion" production of Hildegard von Bingen's 12th century musical drama Ordo Virtutum. My vocal ensemble, San Francisco Renaissance Voices, is performing the work in the original Germanized Latin chant. But the director has imposed an Asian flavor on the 12th century piece by dressing us up in Indian dance outfits (long colorful skirts, matching embroidered or sequinned tops and flowing scarves) and introducing Kathak dance steps. We'll also be accompanied by a bansuri (Indian flute player) and a harpist.

Perhaps it's the overly-analytical theatre critic in me, but as soon as I found out that we'd be mixing traditions, I felt a pressing need to know why.

When the director wasn't able to give me a truly satisfactory explanation, my mind started spinning like car wheels stuck in a ditch. Without even doing it consciously, I started to look for all kinds of rationales for why we might be doing Hildegard this way. Suddenly, clues for the meaning haphazardly started to emerge for me. I gleaned insights from the text (eg Hildegard refers to "garments" a lot in the piece so having the performers all dress in really bright and atypical clothes is a way of drawing attention to this idea.) I found myself thinking about the basis for Hildegard's story - about the battle between the devil and the virtues for the soul - as having echoes in Indian mythology. I even went as far as to consider the link from a musical/physical perspective: chant opens up the body in the same way as saying "om" or some other mantra in yoga, which has its roots in Indian culture.

You'll probably think that this is all a bit over the top. Maybe so. But the point I'm trying to make is this: Art need not justify itself by having to mean something. But we cannot help but search for it anyway. If my director chooses to create a fusion production of Ordo for the simple reasons that he happens to know a bansuri player, has a few sarees from a friend who recently moved to Asia lying about his office, and thinks it might be cool to explore some of the vaguely universal ideas in the work, then at some level that's OK. I, however, personally have to find more tangible to connect with the work I am about to perform. Some of these ways are intellectual and some are more visceral, physical and emotional, as the above examples suggest.

Many of us cannot avoid mining for meanings in art because we are sentient human beings and we naturally look for ways to understand the world we live in. Art provides one way of getting to grips with the essential incomprehensibility of the universe, but great art makes no claim to provide the answers. One of the great joys of experiencing art, in my opinion, is the playfulness it inspires in the audience. I can spend hours just mulling over alternate and contradictory meanings in a work of art, or equally, just turn my attention to how it cause vibrations to course through my body or makes me want to rush out of the room in horror.

Outside of academia, I can't see a drive to find a work of art's meaning trumping the basic experience of interacting with the work itself. And for anyone who's tired of having art explained to them, the solution is simple: Just ignore the program notes and the artist's statement on the gallery wall and walk around before and afterwards with earphones in one's ears to avoid listening to other peoples' reactions. Live in a cocoon. It's as easy as that.


  • Nice reminder that I've been 'meaning' to look into the "we cannot help but search for it anyway" part of this. Why do we need to make a story or find a meaning in art? I don't think it's simply because we're sentient - what is it about sentience that demands meaning? My theory of SITI Company relates to this - I think by creating parallel but independent movement and text that we cannot help but try to make into a story they short-circuit your brain, then you give up the need to find story and meaning - which is perhaps the need to be in control of what you experience - and yield to the art. Hope you find the meaning you're looking for in Ordo. I find it suspicious that the director can't explain their concept. Tried to go to and got an antivirus web site instead, btw. I have no idea what that means but I'm forming a conspiracy theory.

    By Blogger Tom, At July 16, 2008 at 12:50 AM  

  • Interesting point you raise, Tom. by sentience, what i mean is that it's natural, because our brains are wired in a different way than other animals, for us to try to make sense of the world we live in. Life is complex and generally refutes meaning and because of, and in spite of, this we continue to search for it anyway. Creating art is one way to explain the world. Alan Watts has some interesting thing to say about meaning and experience in his book 'The Wisdom of Insecurity'. I like what you say about SITI. I'll think about that when I next see Anne Bogart's work. AS for SFRV -- the fact is that the director is a singer and not a theatre person. I've tried to impress upon him the importance of understanding why he's making what look like a series of rather arbitrary decisions. I don't want to get too uptight and theatre-critic-like about it all though -- there's a kind of topsy-turvy madness to his method and it might work out. as far as me finding the meaning i'm looking for in Ordo, who knows if i will. i don't need to be in control of the experience. i just need to find ways to connect with it. I just tried to go on the website and there seems to be a problem. I didn't get to an antivirus website , but the site won't load. i guess I'll drop the webmaster a line. thanks again for your valuable insights.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At July 16, 2008 at 8:59 AM  

  • Hey -
    Yeah, I understand exactly what you mean about Ordo, the dilemma and the resolution - the situation sounds similar to a staged reading I did of Cymbeline that mixed in text from Winnie the Pooh and Lost Horizon for no apparent reason. The director couldn't explain it to my satisfaction/comprehension and ultimately said we didn't have to know and it was up to the audience to make sense of it. Which they're going to do because of the "search for it anyway" rule and I don't need a grand picture to deliver a line as best I can, but it sure helps "to connect with it" to know what they're doing and why. Anne was fine with my theory of SITI, though we didn't go into it any further. I do think they attack the way we normally and naturally attach meaning/story to what we experience, whether art or not, and attempt to shift your consciousness into a non-linear imaginative mode with the goal of transcendent empathy. I think Room, for example, tries to prod you into an experience of Virginia Woolf's creative process, which seems shockingly ambitious but I thought it was successful in giving you the feeling that you were seeing through Woolf's eyes. But you'd have to ask Anne whether they're consciously trying to do that and whether they have a theory about how meaning is processed by the audience and an agenda and techniques designed to push that processing beyond the breaking point into another state of mind. It works for me, and that's my attempt to make sense of the world of Anne Bogart, because after I leave the theatre in a daze I can't help but do that sentient thing we do.

    By Blogger Tom, At July 18, 2008 at 9:46 PM  

  • Hi -
    Speaking of SITI Co's Room and Woolf and meaning, there's an interesting article on the NPR site called "Virginia Woolf, At Intersection of Science and Art":
    It has an excerpt from "Proust was a Neuroscientist" by Jonah Lehrer: "Woolf's revelation was that we emerge from our own fleeting interpretations of the world. Whenever we sense something, we naturally invent a subject for our sensation, a perceiver for our perception. The self is simply this subject; it is the story we tell ourselves about our experiences. As Woolf wrote in her unfinished memoir, 'We are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.'"

    By Blogger Tom, At August 2, 2008 at 12:08 PM  

  • Keep working ,great job!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At December 30, 2009 at 3:44 AM  

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