Igor Stravinsky said once that there is no such thing as expression. Samuel Beckett expressed his creative credo in 1949 as “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” Nothing new, then, about the idea that expression in the arts is suspect. At the same time, the presumption that the artist is communicating something is built into our language and thought, and hard to elude. We talk about “content,” “meaning,” “medium” and “message” of an artwork. Medium for what? What is being transmitted via the medium? Content? Ideas? Emotions? Where does it come from? The artist, obviously, no? Eliminate from consideration the hyper-rationalist notion that there is anything unadulterated—in terms of content, idea, what have you—that moves from artist to viewer via the artwork, the message in a bottle. Surely, though, illumination is at hand. If the artist is not telling us something, what is the point? Why do it and why look? How come I feel or think so when I see this particular painting, for example, and why do others feel or think similarly? Doesn’t this ratify that art is communication of some kind? But then what of the many differences in interpretation of works? A veritable Babel. One would not aver that competing interpretations are simply wrong, yet how can one call it communication when the response to the artist’s impetus is so varied? If one cannot track back through the work to some operating assumptions of the artist, how can there be expression? Maybe there is a more nuanced way of looking at it, less black and white. What if we talk about “feel” or “sensation,” rather than “content” or “communication,” can one capture the sense of the dynamic between artist, artwork and viewer, without getting tangled up in a philosophical Sargasso of artist intent and information transfer? On the other hand, either there is communication or there isn’t, right? And even if you describe it in more vaporous terms, there is still an implied connection to the intent of the artist, and thus communication? The artist did what they did so you would feel, more or less, the way you do. What if someone doesn’t “get it,” does that mean there are right and wrong responses to the work? Is the artwork itself the vehicle for the expression? If so, what happens when you pluck it out of its particular geographic or cultural sphere; doesn’t the interpretation vary wildly, and so how could the artwork be communicating anything? Mustn’t it then have much more to do with information in the artwork referencing things about which there is a preexisting cultural agreement within the sphere in question? Is that a problem, can’t it still be communication even if the artwork is reduced to a kind of semiotic matrix or forum? Do any of these questions actually produce contradictions? Does it matter? Should one just throw up one’s hand and get on with making art?
These are vexing questions to anyone who has examined them with the intention of clarifying their understanding of what occurs when art is made, viewed and processed, understood, discussed—complicated at times by the visceral aversion to erase one’s ego as an artist or, as a viewer, to confront the confounding miasma spawned by the realization that one’s response to an artwork is potentially ungrounded in the artwork itself, or in any intent of the artist, beyond the question of right or wrong interpretation.