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  • Who Decides What Art Means (and why can't it be me?)

    Image: Can’t Help Myself (2016-19) by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. Photography Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images

    The question of what art means - and by extension, whether it is good - and by further extension, whether it is worth money - has never been murkier. Writer Matt Neubauer tries to figure it all out through the lens of an internet argument about a dying robot, ahead of his upcoming play baby my love for you is Non-Fungible, part of SPRINT Festival 2024.

    If you were spending too much time on the internet circa. 2022, you might have seen a video. In this video, a robot arm with a sort of squeegee attached stands in a pool of dark reddish-brown liquid. It is engaged in the seemingly endless process of sweeping the slowly spreading pool back towards its base. It is a kinetic sculpture, displayed at the Gugenheim museum in New York. It is titled Can’t Help Myself and it has gone viral on every possible social media platform.

    I came across this artwork twice. First, as a viral instagram post with a long, gushy caption about a robot fighting to contain the hydraulic fluid that sustains it, as a metaphor for wage slavery and mental health; and then as an eye-rolling, snappy viral twitter post deriding the original instagram caption and pointing out that, well, actually, if you bothered to read the plaque at the exhibit, you’d see that the work was not, in fact, about ‘Robot Depression’ but instead a metaphor for the violence of borders and technological surveillance. 

    I’ve had this exchange stuck in my head for a couple of years. It has become a big part of the play: a constant friction about what exactly is art, whether it is good, and how much money it is worth. Here’s the thing: I don’t think I’m particularly interested in the sculpture itself. But I am interested in the discourse, the constant echoing waves of viral social media responses it gets, forever circling around but never answering the same question: 

    Who Decides What Art Means?

    When asked about the meaning of his final play, What Where, Samuel Beckett said: 

    “I don't know what it means. Don't ask me what it means. It's an object”

    It’s very tempting to take this at face value. It is a distillation of the promise of many postmodern, existentialist art movements: there is no universal truth, there is no undisputed meaning, there is no objectivity - just objects in space. It is a urinal on a plinth. It is a banana taped to the wall. It is not a pipe. 

    BUT ALSO - did the play not mean something to me, when I first read it? Did it not make me feel a certain way, make me think certain things? And did Beckett not put a great deal of time and effort and specificity and thought and feelings and ideas into it? And is it not possible that some of the things that he was thinking and feeling were also some of the things that I was thinking and feeling? And is that not communication? Is that not meaning

    I think what is interesting about the Can’t Help Myself discourse is that there are three (groups of) people trying to assert their meaning. First, there’s an Audience. There’s something fascinating about the original ‘Robot Mental Health’ interpretation in that it couples an intense emotional response to art with a factual misunderstanding of what they were watching. And sure, as someone who loves to explain in detail what The Matrix is actually about, that bothers me. But also, they seem to be the only person to have experienced meaning in the most emotional, joyful sense. At risk of being patronising - maybe we should just let them have that?

    Second, there’s the Artists, and here’s a question which I don’t particularly have an answer to: if you’re an artist creating intentionally abstract art - why explain it? Why put a little plaque next to it? Why write a blurb explaining it on your website? If this sounds like a criticism, it’s not - if there’s one thing I’ve realised about writing plays, it is that I much prefer talking about writing my plays to actually writing them. And there are obviously practical reasons relating to finding and selling art to an audience which an ageing, Nobel-prize-winning playwright is less subject to. But also, perhaps, it speaks to a lack of confidence in the art to speak for itself. 

    So finally, there is a more nebulous group. I am going to call them Art Deciders. And this group interests me most of all. This group has correctly understood the work. They have read the plaque and the blog post and the New York Times review.  In the twitter thread, they call the original post “disrespectful to the original intent”. Another user agrees below: “it is important to know what the work is actually about”. But: why? I think there are a few things here: a belief that the ‘correct’ interpretation is more powerful; a concern that the artist’s quite political intended message is being overwritten by one which is softer, more palatable (and, whisper it, slightly cringe?); and the sense of superiority gained from being the only kid in the class who knows the right answer. 

    But here’s the big thing: the trouble with existentialism is that once you have proclaimed that God is dead and universal truth is done away with, it leaves a big hole and that makes a lot of people very unhappy. 

    I am confronted by an object which I do not understand, and, terrified of the possibilities of it all, I turn to the nearest source of authority, and ask: “What does it mean?”. And if the authority turns back to me and says “It’s about borders” then I can move on with my life confident in that certainty. But if they say: “It is just an object”, I must suddenly, painfully, confront the idea that the responsibility of deciding what art means falls solely and squarely on ME.

    So finally, here’s a thought that I cannot particularly explain: that art does not have inherent meaning, that it is just an object - BUT - that it is a machine for creating meaning; that the meaning is created by you, the audience, and your interaction with the machine, and your conversations about the machine. Sometimes we all arrive at the same meaning, and we get to share it, and that is beautiful. And sometimes we all arrive at different meanings, and we get to argue about it, and that is also beautiful. Amen.

     

    baby my love for you is Non-Fungible is part of SPRINT Festival 2024 

    Fri 22nd March at 9 pm

    TIckets £8 (work in progress)

    Matthew Neubauer

    "Our children live in the most deprived ward in London and their parents cannot afford to pay for the classes and activities many more privileged children enjoy after school and at the weekends. A free-to-access youth group run by a local theatre in a professional setting is an incredible opportunity."

    Local school teacher