Individuality in Readers of the Work of Art: Conclusion

Undergraduate Academic Essay

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In the works of literature I have discussed, narration and performance contribute to the creative powers of the reader. The structure provided by point-of-view allows readers a wide range of individual interpretations. In Browning's "My Last Duchess," for example, the Duke tells a story directly to the reader. Not only am I given freedom to imagine with what tone of voice and with what expressions the Duke speaks, but I am also free to fill in the details and motives for his very performance. As Mitchell notes, we might choose to focus on the ways in which Browning himself performs (21). In Lessing's "To Room Nineteen," the particular perspective forced on the reader -- a closeness to the suicidal heroines' inner thoughts and anxieties -- paves the way for a multitude of readings dependent on reader's individual experiences. My interaction with the story was not guided by a search for ultimate truths; rather, travels through the landscape of Susan's mind encouraged comparisons and contrasts with my own emotions. Finally, "Lady Lazarus" is marked different for each reader according to the inflections and subtleties one assigns to ambiguous speech. As with the two previous works, Plath's poem actively evokes the reader's involvement. Ambiguity here is not boundless -- readers may agree that "I guess you could say I've a call" (45) is a remarkably casual statement; the differences lie in readers' understanding of how casual, how sarcastic. Dramatic monologue in "My Last Duchess" and "Lady Lazarus" and first-person narration in "To Room Nineteen" necessitate gaps in the story -- gaps that might be filled by an omniscient narrator -- and consequently provide room for individuality in readers' construction of the texts.

I believe the same plurality of interpretations exist in the world of visual arts. Magritte's painting of a fragmented woman intrigued me with its awkwardness and "unrightability." Not satisfied with Caws' rejection of female fragmentation, I sense an alternative reading of awkwardness. Looking at the painting from a different perspective, I see not female degradation but a play on the very idea of representation and self-consciousness. Similarly, Bellmer's dolls do not necessarily have to be read as encouragements toward violence. In noticing forces that already exist in various forms in our culture (pornography, child molestation, war), I contemplate a vast network of controversial subjects. Out of my interaction with the dolls emerges a contemplation, a discussion-in-waiting, of violence and its relation to sex. Finally, Sherman's Untitled #96 uses the suggestion of narrative to actively encourage the detective in every reader. The image's ambiguity lends itself to a multitude of interpretations. My curiosity is never satisfied with an end to the story, except in the tentative conclusions that I create in my imagination.

In sum, I believe that an infinity of interpretations is possible without destroying the integrity of the work, its difference. This infinity is not the effect of an empty core into which we can dump anything. It does not proclaim the meaninglessness of the text. Rather, it is the result of a process by which a text is personalized, scrutinized and "understood" by an individual reader. I believe that the reader is already an amalgamation of texts, shared and unshared experiences, and tendencies, and cannot be accurately represented as an ideal type. I rebel against an interpretation which claims universal truth, as does Caws' assertion that we should reject a work that assaults the wholeness of the image of woman (272). Art that opens up more networks, more avenues for discussion and imagination, is good art. At the same time, this sort of openness is not accidental or random. As Eco observes, too little order leads to no meaning at all (98). In trying to provide a framework in which the reader can always come back and find more, I am looking to color and texture as rich sources of the unexpected. Color is the means to destruction of order; its namelessness guarantees that it will be another corridor for spectator imagination, distinct from the more representative pleasures of the image. Color and texture are signifiers that can be noticed separately from the other texts of the painting -- referential, narrative, and so on -- and so provide additional sources for meaning. Moreover, in naming these texts, I am not implying a hierarchy or categorization. In the words of Barthes, "To read is to find meanings, and to find meanings is to name them . . ." (S/Z, 11). I subscribe to no law determining the highest meaning.

I have come to believe in the importance of the individual reader as the distinction between authorial intention and reader of those intentions has blurred in my own mind. As a painter, I am my own reader: a self-critical voice fights with a self-indulgent voice; I respond to marks I made days ago with new marks, as if a previously passive spectator has come forward to voice her input; I imagine a multitude of voices, participating or not participating in the physical or mental process of painting, before any other person has even seen the work. While there are shared characteristics among readers, it is their differences which are important to me. It is the cacophony of voices, the infinity of differing experiences of a painting, including my own, which makes the process worthwhile.

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© 2018 Kristen Ankiewicz