2005/05/30

Evocation, parts 6 & 7

6. Meaning and interpretation.
Evocation falls in line with a view that allows multiple "correct" interpretations of an artwork. The structural features one finds in a work, which evoke emotion, are found idiosyncratically. There may be, as mentioned earlier, a great deal of similarity within a culture that conduces to similarities in what is evoked in audience members of a culture. A Japanese audience may well understand a kabuki play in one way, while a Chinese one finds its meaning somewhat different, and it is still differently significant to an American one. The commonalities of experience permit these similarities while still allowing that there is not necessarily a most correct reaction to a particular work.
The meaning of a work, in terms of what is evoked, is often spoken of with such phrases as "what it means to me." Special associations between an encounter with a work and a context in which the encounter takes place may also be mentioned in this way; let us set aside such familiar circumstances as someone saying of herself and her significant other "This song makes me happy because it was playing when we first met." A work that means something "special" to someone is such because the features of the work that evoke do so especially powerfully (and perhaps uniquely) for the individual.
These factors do much to explain the varying interpretations of works that abound in both popular and so-called "high" art. The symbols to be found in a work—especially what it expresses—are found there in virtue of the audience's interaction with the work. So too what is evoked by an artwork depends on that interaction, albeit on a different, if no less elevated, stage. Perhaps the view espoused here is not so far away from Dewey's, in that the construction of an artistic experience (that is, the encounter with one in which the audience interacts with the work) involves a change in the one encountering it, by the use of prior experience to resolve tension. If we take the resolution to be constitutive of or resulting in new understanding (and an expanded repertoire of methods for navigating the world), we have not gone so far at all. Even the talk of relations may be a distant relative of the "evocation" of meaning in art that Dewey posits. However closely these theories are in fact, it is surely right from what has been said to suppose that interpretation is finding meaning in a work, and that the emotional reaction—so far as cognitive—is part of the meaning, part of the interpretation.

7. Conclusion.
We have seen that, by blending the cognitive theory of expression in art that Nelson Goodman proposes with some ideas of John Dewey's we can roughly outline a robust theory of art. A certain sort of phenomena, which has been described as the emotional reaction evoked by an artwork, is a "cognitive" result of an encounter with a work. The properties possessed by a work are possessed in virtue of the audience's finding them in it. The significant point is a small one: that the possession of a particular property by a work (whether the property is emotional or not) is not what evokes in us the emotional response. Instead, evocation consists in the audience's finding a structural similarity between properties of the work (as they are arranged in relation to each other) and a prior experience(s) the audience has had which is attached to an emotion, whether strongly felt or not. The difference between the verbal understanding of an expression of a work and the emotional response evoked by it is merely a matter of the features a work does possess, but the particulars of the features are found to be different. Works of art may be very powerful to us, and may have many associations in our minds that are unique to our own histories. Works may function as a medium of catharsis for us, allowing a wellspring of emotion to splash upon the arid detached mind, or inspire by their ability to grip us with evocations of deep feeling. What we have done here is merely to attempt to understand how this may be so, but the mystery that we find in our reactions to art remains. The intense personal meanings experiences of certain works have for us continue to be so; we have never aimed at, nor really wanted, to remove all the wonder from evocation.

[Update. See the rest at parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 & 7.]

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