Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lost in Translation | Open Thread

We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.
--Oscar Wilde
There is a notion oft discussed in the context of the increasingly global art market, especially when it comes to predicting what type of art you can sell to people who live in a different part of the world. It is asserted that the nuances of most visual art will be lost on people not intimately familiar with the culture of the artist who produced it. This notion is used both to explain poor sales when, for example, an American gallery ships its wares half way around the world, and to dismiss harsh criticism of artwork by writers from outside the artist's culture.

It's a convenient notion, but I'm not entirely sure it's as simple as whether or not one gets the political or socioeconomic double entendre of this or that work. Only visual one-liners would be truly inaccessible because of such cultural language limitations, or so it seems to me.

Then again, I read something the other day that made me wonder whether it's not only being born in another part of the world that leads one to lose much in translation, but also relating to the world through a different set senses.

But I should back up.

Last week I continued a conversation with someone kind enough to stop by the gallery about "straight" photography (see earlier discussion on this here) and the difference in opinion between photographers who feel that those in the field who simply point and shoot what they see around them (the "straight" photographers) are being marginalized by those who support artists who see the medium as essentially more plastic than that (the "conceptual" artists who set up scenes or otherwise manipulate the world and only use photography as a raw material in their work, for lack of a better term). As I've noted before, this is not a fight I have a dog in. I have always thought that there is plenty of truly wonderful "straight" photography being made today, and I get excited by the new ideas in photography I see.

Shortly after that discussion, though, I re-read the following (in the production notes of "The Glass Menagerie" by Tennessee Williams [reading and re-reading plays is one my guilty pleasures...don't ask me why...I'm not sure]):
Everyone should know nowadays the unimportance of the photographic in art: that truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance.
This was written about 1944 or so, long before photography truly came into its own as a fine art form (at least within the art market), but rather than suggest Williams wasn't prescient enough to see how important the photographic would become in art, I wanted to explore whether or not it was his focus on the written (rather than visual) art form that led to his missing its potential. (Of course, I'm opening a second can of worms by suggesting the theater is less visual than fine art, I know, but let me see if I can wiggle myself out of it.)

More than simply the subtitles missed by people from another part of the world, I wonder: are the nuances of one art form's languages (visual, written, dance, musical, etc.) also lost on those who are not fluent it it. In New York, in particular, we like to see ourselves as culturally literate. We attend concerts and performances in between visits to museums or simply reading at home (or, more often, on the subway). We like to think of ourselves as well-rounded consumers of culture and able to intelligently discuss a wide range of creative efforts.

But the truth of the matter is that, there are important degrees that can lead to major misunderstandings or miscommunications via missed subtitles. For example, my German is better than my French. Not only because I studied it longer, but because I had the chance to practice it more recently. A month or two in France, though, and my French might catch up to and surpass my German again. In other words, most of us are not equally fluent at all stages of our lives in the various languages (spoken or arts) that we know, and our fluency ebbs and flows with the degree of usage or interaction.

More than that, there are ongoing changes in the every language: new slang or coinages that are easily misunderstood if one doesn't keep up. Just because someone really, really knew what was happening on the bleeding edge of contemporary art 10 years ago (but then turned to other things) doesn't mean they'd be the best judge of some new ideas percolating in the studios of Bushwick or Beijing today. One needs to continually interact to remain fluent.

So is a playwright the best judge of what's important in visual art? He might be if he remains current in the latest thinking. (We do turn to poets for much of our most insightful art criticism.) But I suspect there are subtitles in, for example, a painting that only an artist who paints can appreciate. Extrapolating that to consider non-painting viewers from a different country with a different culture and a different language, and it begins to seem the notion is true: a great deal is undoubtedly lost in translation.

Oh...you were expecting some sort of conclusion here, weren't you?

My bad...

Consider this an open thread on the tower of Babel that is our global cultural scene.

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10 Comments:

Anonymous Gam said...

Louise Bourgeois's pertinent protests aside, I'm not sure if we need to get art, for it to be of value.
Im thinking of Van Morrison's "Have I told you lately ..." love song. I really have enjoyed that song, and then when I started to listen to his body of works, then I realized, -oy- he's likely singing about God. I was thunderstruck, - maybe I finally got it. But whether I'm wrong now, or I was wrong before, it's still a gorgeous song.

Which makes me wonder if we really need to get the artists intent in order to get something worthwhile from art. Maybe its okay if we do lose something in translation.

10/19/2010 10:58:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

It seems that tastes change depending on location and time. This is true for fashion in art, as well as for just plain old fashion.

So maybe the question is what gets beyond this and becomes more universal?

On the other hand, someone was pointing out to me recently that "These sell better in Hong Kong but they like these in London"

10/19/2010 11:46:00 AM  
Blogger Saskia said...

Hmm, I misread the Tenessee Williams quote the first time, and got a much different interpretation from it that what you suggested in this post. Somehow because of my misreading, I wanted more context on the quote and found this,
"Williams also takes on American social realism in his notes on the play:
The straight realistic play with its genuine Frigidaire and authentic ice-cubes, its characters who speak exactly as its audience speaks, corresponds to the academic landscape and has the same virtue of a photographic likeness. Everyone should know nowadays the unimportance of the photographic in art..."

I think that quote got a little lost in translation. I'm not sure TW was trying to talking about photography as an art medium as much as he was using it as a shortcut to talk about social realism in general. Perhaps that was the only way photography was thought of in that time? Maybe that's what you meant about him being shortsighted regarding the photographic in art? Of course, today we all realize that photography as a medium for art involves just as much transformation as any other medium, so the quote reads quite differently.
Whatever we make of the part about the photographic in art, I thought the rest of the quote was just beautiful.

Sometimes things can be lost in translation, but all translation involves transformation, and things can be gained just as easily as lost in translation...

just a thought that may lead to nowhere... (I like those sometimes)

10/19/2010 01:18:00 PM  
Blogger Tatiana said...

This is such a hard topic because it boils down to the quintessential question: What is art?...is it beauty? (Gam's 'gorgeous song' reference above), is it something everyone SHOULD 'get'? is it just pure tangible expression? are politics always involved?....so talking about culture and who's best to determine what is "good" where and when....eh.....
so in terms of "GOOD" art I think there are certain (and im sticking my neck out here and please excuse the severe truncation of analysis) core/standard/classic type genres of art...AND there are the more maverick styles where you MAY need cultural *instruction* or background to be able to "get it" -- artist's intention, that is. Not to say that within the more maverick-y styles, you couldnt appreciate and love the piece even though you were completely ignorant of the particular culture, era, geography, intention, etc......
But if we (Edward) are talking about pure sales, where art sells and to whom, the more maverick, the more risky art, is probably a harder sell in an uninformed arena.
As for being lost in translation...I absolutely love (and cry to) many pieces of music where I cant understand one word. Yes, maybe a large part is the "classic" music I'm hearing, but it's also the voice, the pure voice. I may not know what she/he is singing about, but I know it resonates with me. If someone is singing (in Armenian, let's say -- I dont speak it) about happily beheading her 6 week old puppy in grim detail and I fall in love with the song -- is it good music? Yes, she may be singing it "well," in tune and all..but is the song good? Maybe it's only "good" until I become aware of the artist's intention...? Or is it good because i am unaware of the intention? Is my ignorance my bliss. I think so. So I dont "get" the song, but it gets me -- and I play it and play it, that is, until an Armenian guest comes over for a glass of wine and some "atmosphere."

10/19/2010 04:03:00 PM  
OpenID thepurposeofart said...

The very truth you speak of concerning the relativity of art across the cultural/social spectrum highlights what I have come to despise about a great deal of criticism. Hardcore critics always talk about Michael Kimmelman as though he has a lack of critical judgement, but this is always what I have found appealing about him. I believe that it should be the job of the criic to broaden and enhance understanding rather than limit and "idiosyncrify" the dialog surrounding it. I think this is why curators have become the most powerful individuals in the art world, because they see the connections and relationships among art and try to work within this global dynamic.

10/19/2010 09:55:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

A few years ago my wife and I were in Italy, and we bought a boxed set of Woody Allen DVDs. They were overdubbed in Italian, and you could choose from 6 different languages for the subtitles. We thought it would be fun to watch these movies in one foreign language and read subtitles in another. When we got home we found that our DVD player couldn't play the discs.

I'm not sure how that relates to your post, EW, but it seems to in some way...

10/20/2010 01:34:00 AM  
Anonymous FlorenceStJohn said...

I've enjoyed reading the above comments...but I think the answer could possibly be more straightforward.
It sounds like Tennessee Williams is giving voice to the surrealist view on photography, as practised by Man Ray and others since the 1920s.
Surrealist photographers were of course unintereted in 'straight' visual depiction but in revealing the poetic 'truths' of the imagination through producing strange and disorientating images.
I don't know enough about Tennessee Williams to know if he was close to the surrealists, but he did at least know Jean Cocteau, who produced a version of A Street Car Named Desire in 1949.

10/20/2010 05:15:00 AM  
Blogger Nina Ulana said...

Art will always be universal. Commodities can be "lost in translation" due to differing cultural markets. Too simple? In regard to Tennessee Williams, opinions change with experience (and time/s). Interesting to see what Tennessee would write today. Reading and rereading are my likes as well. Thank you, as always, for inspiring minds!

10/20/2010 03:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I interpret the quote to mean that the photographic is unimportant because reality is an activity, not something that exists solely outside of the mind. Any art form that slavishly depicts reality and makes insufficient use of the imagination is 'photographic' in this sense. It is immediately accessible but unsatisfying.

Cathy

10/21/2010 10:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I do feel there are universal themes, the execution seems to be cultural or to a specific time and place. Once in awhile you get some bodies of work that seem to transcend, but I also wonder if it is more of a Rorschach test - everyone sees something a little different, and takes something different away. Lucky for the artist when it does, and perhaps there are some things that attempt to do this, too.

10/21/2010 12:59:00 PM  

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