Art as communication

I often come across the idea of art as a form of communication. While I think it’s true that art communicates something or, perhaps, more accurately, multiple things, I have a problem with art being represented as simply being analogous to other forms of communication. I feel this representation undervalues art.

Communication consists of four primary elements: the sender, the message, the medium, and the receiver. I believe that all art consists of these elements, which is why I also think we can portray art – in an over-simplification – as being nothing more than a form of communication. I realize that people might do this without thinking too much about it, but when I encounter this it prompts me to respond in order to encourage a broader perspective.

The primary essence of communication is comprehension. Communication breaks down – i.e. does not happen – when it is not comprehended by the receiver. Lack of comprehension can occur for myriad reasons in any specific instance, but, generally, the culprit is a lack of clarity. Clarity may not exist because the message was rife with ambiguity, for example, or there was content that was simply not understood by the receiver, again for various possible reasons. However, in communicating we expect there to be a one-to-one relationship – a singularity – between what is intended to be communicated, and the message that is actually received.

Although the whole point of communication outside the realm of art – one-on-one or group conversation, oration from a speaker to an audience, email, journal articles, etc. – is to be understood, art does not rely on this value. Importantly, if it is not understood, it does not cease to be art. Furthermore, the sender (the artist) may not even want to be understood, at least not in all instances. That is, whether or not they sometimes want to be understood, artists realize and accept that being understood will likely not happen in all cases. Additionally, what is intended by the artist may indeed by a multiplicity of messages. The idea of art being open to interpretation may arguably be the defining aspect of what makes something art as opposed to something else. Yet, even if this is not the case (i.e. if art is more than simply something that can have multiple interpretations), it is typical of any art that multiple receivers of that art will each take away a different message, is often the result that is actually desired by the artist. It is obvious that this phenomenon of multiplicity in art is a stark contrast to – indeed, the very opposite of – the primary essence of communication, which is singularity.

The beauty and the importance of art depend on subjectivity. Subjectivity essentially subverts the ultimate goal of communication. Art may be a form of communication or include communication but it is so much more. I’m inclined to go as far as saying that art is something other than communication, even though it shares common aspects.


Playing catch-up (and overcoming a creative block)

1) R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy

2) The worst thing about not having written for a while is the resulting need to catch up on things. The more time that passes there is more to write about and, consequently, there is also the challenge of knowing where to pick up again. Better to keep up on things a little, even if it means writing a little bit in the margins of a busy schedule – just something, even if it is not as elaborate as I feel is warranted.

3) The need to catch up on things has extended to my composition as well. I took a little vacation early this month and found it difficult to get motivated again when it was over. I realized this difficulty was due to a minor “creative block” – something I’ve been learning more about lately in a book by Victoria Nelson called On Writer’s Block. Basically, I fell into “thinking” (although it was largely not conscious) of my current quartet composition solely as something that I had to get done – an obligation – which, although it is the case that I have to meet a deadline, the need to work obscured the play aspect. I normally have fun when I compose and yet this can be relegated to a secondary priority when the composing is also required. The fact is, when I approach each session as something fun and playful, I get way more done. Realistically, there are times when a deadline has to be met and I might not be in the mood, but I work anyway. In those cases, I’ve most often found that when I get into the flow of the session it becomes fun. I’m grateful for this, not just for the project at hand, which surely benefits when it doesn’t feel like drudgery, but also because it reaffirms that I am in my element. It’s just that the pressures of a deadline and life, in general, can contribute to a sense of urgency, which can lead to a dangerous mental backsliding into an anxiety, which, I’ve learned, one’s subconscious will resist by erecting a block. Fortunately, a reminder to have fun and be playful was all it took to get me back into regular composing. Now, I’m behind because of the break, but I’m having fun catching up, allowing myself the space and time to put in extra sessions.

4) I picked this book up a while ago – I always seem to buy more books than I can possibly keep on top of – but started reading it a couple weeks ago due to my involvement in a new project, which will hopefully turn into an income generating pursuit for the summer. A couple of my colleagues from SFU recruited me to help with writing and production of a music/theatre piece for summer touring, which is to be sponsored by the Burnaby Arts Council if we pass the audition in April.

5) My improv group played at the West Coast Composer’s Symposium at the University of Victoria on February 6th. We did a structured improv piece that Chris Blaber designed based on gamelan music, which most of us in the group are studying. Chris and I are both interested in how to apply typical gamelan structures to non-gamelan music.

Gamelan premiere

Last Wednesday I was honoured to be a part of the world premiere of a new Gamelan composition by Sutrisno Hartana (for beginner orchestra and guests) in honour of Pak Sus, a great teacher – in fact, the first Javanese gamelan teacher in the U.S.  – who recently passed away.  Although this event was tinged with sadness it was also celebratory.  An influential teacher like Pak Sus “lives on” in spirit through his teachings, which become the resultant practice of many devoted followers.  For me personally, I felt there was something special about being a part of this tribute at such an early stage of my gamelan career.