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Art Should Render You Speechless, Not Glib

Updated: Jul 10, 2021


I'm thinking that there is always something baffling about the experience of a work of art. If you see it too quickly you are imposing something you learned, you are not seeing it. The capacity of a work of art to "take your breath away," to render you speechless, is a measure of its success. Glibness is for people who've convinced themselves they've got all the answers, that there is nothing further to know. Like the tourist who goes to Paris and photographs the Eiffel Tower just as they expected it to be: centering it directly in the frame, making it look like all the post cards they've ever seen. It's the difference between the technique of a kiss and the trembling lower lip prior to: we should be a moment stunned, out of control. It should simultaneously delight and humble us. We should stumble, spill our coffee, and stammer because the words are not yet available. A great poem is a sleeping animal you wake with your breath. You see it fresh each time, as if you've never seen it before.

I've done poetry readings where the host insists on having a Q & A. People will ask me about myself. I'm not nearly as interesting as the poems I write. People ask about the content of the poems and what part of my life inspired them. This bores me. I'm participating in a river of human language, in this case English, that holds all the poems ever written. This humbles me.

Same with art, which is a language unto itself. Why create a lesser language about it that reduces it by shifting it to another part of the brain, a part that is too glib?


In the sixties, Susan Sontag wrote a book called AGAINST INTERPRETATION. I don't remember a thing about the book but I'm thinking a lot about interpretation lately, and how I find it less interesting than the actual experience of the work of art. Maybe it's because I've just escaped from the academic profession and am committed to administering a kind of a brain laxative to rid myself of the kind of head babble that I've heard for years.

When I was writing poems about Vietnam there would always been a Q & A. People wanted to know about my experience in Vietnam, how terrible it must have been. War is by definition melodramatic and people want to indulge themselves. I didn't want to talk about the experiences behind the poems; the poems were enough. They offered windows. They offered ways of looking. What if we just read the poems, or listened to them, without talking about them? A poem is a complex experience and an explanation is a lesser experience.

What about standing in front of a painting and allowing it to have its effect, to allow the non-typical thoughts and feelings play through one's own psyche instead "interpreting" according to what the docent is saying, or what the most fashionable school of criticism is saying about it.

Music is the most interesting of the arts because it allows the least amount of discussion. It's a perfect mind/body meld. It's not binary. It's whole. No one can say idiotic things about it because it resists interpretation. It is quite remarkable that Beethoven was deaf in his later years and that he was still able to compose because he could hear the music inside him. But that is less interesting than the music itself.

I was at a dinner party back in the nineties when a woman explained to me that the subject of her dissertation was "rape rhythms in Beethoven's music." There had been some speculation that he'd raped someone. There is absolutely no evidence that he did. I thought her dissertation was the stupidest thing I'd ever heard. This was the level of idiocy in musicology in those days and I was astonished that her faculty would approve the topic. I'm no longer astonished about anything a faculty might do anymore, but I rest my case. Is there anyone who has ever listened to Beethoven ever imagined that his music was about that?

This is to me the ultimate reason to allow experience to override discourse.

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Alexander Symington
Alexander Symington

This is a great message for those afraid to believe their eyes. I think we struggle with pre-conception in most arenas, whether in art, politics or culture/society. It's difficult to trust your own mind living in these days of post-truth America and the highly sophisticated capitalist marketing of everything under the sun. "Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth." - Buddha - I wonder what he might say about Americans today.

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