Lost in Translation | Open Thread
We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.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?
Consider this an open thread on the tower of Babel that is our global cultural scene.