Individuality in Readers of the Work of Art: Overview

Undergraduate Academic Essay

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  1. Overview
  2. The Reader of Literature
  3. The Reader of Visual Art
  4. The Reader and the Artist
  5. Conclusion
  6. Works Cited

Individuality in Readers of the Work of Art

A thesis submitted jointly to the Departments of English and American Literature and Language and Visual, Environmental Studies, Harvard University, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Bachelor's Degree with Honor.

As soon as we approach a work of literature or art, we give over a portion of ourselves -- our memories, our likes and dislikes -- to the work. As Wolfgang Iser explains in The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response, a work of literature is not merely the text, nor the reader's private imagination, but is the dynamic communication between reader and text. Similarly, Kate Linker notes that a shift has occurred in notions of the work of art, in the recent acknowledgement of "a reader who is positioned to receive and construct the text, a historically formed reader shaped in and through language" (391).

As a painter, my labors are born and judged in relation to an audience, whether real or hoped-for. I want to communicate something, to speak to people through my art; the expectations, desires, and experiences of those who see my art are crucial elements in my endeavors. In seeking to understand my relation to those looking at my work, I will explore the role of readers in works of verbal and visual part. I will examine "the reader" not as a type or ideal, but as an ultimately uncategorizable, distinct person. In pursuit of understanding my own work, I will examine how the richly varied, unpredictable spectator and the visual or verbal object make "the work of art."

At this point I must note that there are for me no significant differences between the reading of visual art and the reading of literature. The term "reader" is a suitable descriptor of those processes of understanding and interpretation that both readers of literature and viewers of art undergo. Unfortunately, "spectator" and "viewer" are inadequate substitutes for the term "reader." "Reading" connotes a process of deciphering, a method of acting on a text: How do you read his expression? "Viewer" and "Spectator" connote a more passive, stand-offish position: Be a player, not a spectator. Consequently, though I still use the traditional applications of the words -- readers read literature, spectators/viewers look at art -- I prefer "reader" in cases where I emphasize the active, decision-making qualities of the interpretive process. At the same time, I might describe a reader of literature as a "spectator" or "witness" to images that seem to emerge from the text, keeping in mind that what emerges from the text is always assisted by the reader.

My project is born of a belief that reader-response theories directed toward verbal arts would illuminate an analysis of painting. The emphasis on the reader in recent theories of literary criticism epitomizes for me the 'divergent' character of literary interpretations: the result of literary analysis is not a single answer, but a multitude of possibilities, depending on the reader, the context of reading, and the openness of language to more than one meaning. Roland Barthes defines the ideal text according to its very plurality: "In this ideal text, the networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one . . ." (S/Z, 5).

Models commonly employed in literary criticism, particularly the notions of a reader and a text interacting to make the work of art, can and should be applied to visual art. Wolfgang Iser best describes this "coming together" as the realization of the text by an individual reader: "If the virtual position of the work is between text and reader, its actualization is clearly the result of an interaction between the two . . ." ("Interaction between Text and Reader" 106). Moreover, the spectator must not be cast in terms of psychoanalysis' pre-examined laws of gendered self-hood, nor in terms of an ideal reader, but rather according to a set of possibilities. Viewers may have emotions -- such as indignation or awkwardness -- that can be looked at as valid responses in themselves. Awkwardness as a response evoked in the reader can be useful and creative.

As both producer and spectator of works of art, I am in a peculiar position. One the one hand, I heed Barthes' distinction between "readable" and "writable" texts, between those that constrain the reader to certain interpretation and those that "can be written (rewritten) today" (S/Z, 4). In Micheal Moriarty's explanation of this distinction, "The scriptible text. . . gives no indications as to how it is to be read, opens out a vast range of potential meanings without forcing any on our attention . . . " (118). I prefer those works that approach writability; I most admire those works, visual as well as verbal, that allow a multiplicity of interpretations, that can be remade by each reader/viewer. Yet, as producer of art myself, I hesitate to forfeit ownership. Struggling to invest meaning in my own works, I am often disappointed by the gulf between authorial intentions and spectators' reactions.

Ultimately, I embrace the ideal of plurality from both positions. I want spectators of my own work to draw their own conclusions, and I take, as a spectator of other works, the same freedom. At the same time, I need to balance my role as artist with this goal. Fortunately, balancing my power as artist with the conflicting needs of the reader to remake the work do not entail self-abnegation. Plurality of readings does not come from a mere absence of obvious authorial intention; paradoxically, it takes a great deal of structuring to eliminate a stifling sense of structure. In the words of Umberto Eco, "the richest form of communication -- richest because most open -- requires a delicate balance permitting the merest order within the maximum disorder" (98). In other words, my work ethic is supported by the goal of openness.

With these words in mind, I have gathered works in which the 'merest order' allows multivalent relations between artistic text and reader/spectator. I intend to show how an analysis that takes into account the emotions, responses, and associations of the reader enriches the work. In the world of art as well as in literature I am interested in the representation of women, and particularly in works which put the reader in what might be called an awkward position: Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess"; Doris Lessing's story "To Room Nineteen"; Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus"; René Magritte's Les Liaisons dangereuses; Hans Bellmer's La Poupée; and a 1985 photograph, Untitled #96, by Cindy Sherman. In "My Last Duchess," "To Room Nineteen," and "Lady Lazarus," the theatricality of the work engages the reader in what amounts to a performance of reader and text. Dramatic monologue and first-person narration provide a loose structure in which I actively seek out and create meanings. A comparable process occurs in the works of visual art. The placement of figures in relation to a frame and in relation to spectators allow individuals to consider (and project themselves onto) larger narrative or conceptual frameworks. In these works, I become author as I look, creating the "before" and "after" of the visual stories. Color and texture, allowing an image to break away from representational constraints, act as further devices for the reader's creative role.

By analyzing these works in terms of potential readings, I hope to learn more about the role of the audience in my own work, paintings completed since September of this year. I am not merely pursuing an object of desire as I paint; I also want to communicate something to an audience. Again, my process aims to support the potentiality and freedom of the reader's experience. I have chosen to analyze works of literature and art that best define the effects I hope to achieve, involving readers without controlling them. What guides the above choices is my desire, as a painter, to secure the active and sustained involvement of the spectator in the works I began.

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