Way back during my turbulent twenties – about the time Nancy Reagan was tossing out Rosalynn’s White House china, and Mount St Helens was tossing its summit into low earth orbit – I had a friend.
We’re going to call this friend “Carl,” mainly because that’s his name, and when I try to use pseudonyms I lose track of who’s who from one paragraph to the next. Carl was a director of theatrical productions, and possessed a wealth of interesting – if occasionally impenetrable – epigrams with which he informed and edified his actors. In the course of a friendship that lasted many years (and continues to this day, thanks to the internet) I managed to retain two important and enduring lessons from Carl’s store of wisdom:
A) that cultural sophistication is something you evolve over time, not something you can pick up by watching a lot of public television, and
B) that “mood” spelled backwards is “doom”.
In a twenty-two-year-old farm boy from rural Alabama, barriers to comprehension were high. It didn’t take me long to understand that inserting chunks of Eliot or Auden into every conversation never fools anybody, but the significance of the mood/doom connection went right over my head.
In the golden age of classical Greek drama, it was not unusual for actors to appear with their faces hidden behind large masks, each designed to display an emotional state – love, hate, anger, joy, whatever the story required. The identity of the actor behind each mask was unimportant; he was only a single individual, after all, and the Greek dramatists sought to address issues and concepts that were universal. When Aeschylus wrote about the relationship between Electra and her mother, he wasn’t just dealing with one woman’s story of rage and revenge. He was attempting to connect with those emotions in everyone, using a framework of narrative and characters already familiar to much of his audience.
I like Ian McKellen, but I don’t pay ten bucks to watch Mrs McKellen’s baby boy romp around a big screen. What I’m paying to see is Gandalf, or Magneto, or King Lear. I want characters who are also ideas, bigger than any one person. I don’t actually know Ian McKellen personally, but I feel that I know King Lear – or at least what he represents – and that’s what I’m after: the universal, the tragic, something I can connect to within myself even if I’m nothing like Ian McKellen.
This dialectic is one that every artist must address: how to describe an interior landscape without being so specific that nobody outside one’s own head can possibly find a way around in it. Hence the masks. If I want you to experience my joy, standing up in front of you giggling uncontrollably for an hour is probably not going to do the trick. Likewise with tragedy or pain. Even if I really just want to roll around on the floor in a swamp of tears and snot tearing at my hair and howling, that kind of display will at best inspire pity, and at worst terror, in a spectator. I have to find those emotions in you and call them out, not just stand there showing you how they affect me. I want you, the audience, the viewer, to feel something, but if I succumb to that feeling myself, I lose the ability to communicate with you effectively.
“Mood” equates to “doom”. It begins to make sense.
A painter, like any other artist, has something to say. Even if the message is just about a color (Yves Klein) or about paint itself (Jackson Pollock) or about the beauty of the square (Kazimir Malevich), there is a message, and there’s an emotional need to convey that message — but the more intensely felt the message is, the more profound the the risk of merely displaying the emotion, rather than communicating it.
If I’m too obscure when I put a painting out in front of people, too abstract, I may not be providing enough for a viewer to grab. A perfectly blank white canvas is a beautiful thing, but how is anybody supposed to intuit my emotional and intellectual concerns from several square feet of nothingness?
But what about the opposite? What if I make my message absolutely billboard clear and explicit, leaving nothing to the imagination? I will have made a statement, certainly, but will I have left enough room for the viewer to engage with me? After all, a conversation with someone who does nothing but shout one phrase over and over is not likely to be very emotionally fulfilling.
Somehow, I have to provide enough information to invite the spectator into the conversation, but leave enough unsaid that he or she can draw upon his or her own experience to complete the thought in a way that allows us both to take ownership of the exchange. I want the viewer to experience the emotion — the “mood” — but internally, not as something that I’ve smacked him over the head with.
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