All Work and No Frame Makes Steven a Dull Boy

Because I’m a fan of nuance, allow me to complicate my recent treatises on my preferred brand of art. 

And what better way to complicate than with a question:

What happens if/when I can’t concoct an overall framework that makes *some* sense of the artistic abstraction before me?

Two recent examples that come to mind: Julia Ducournau’s movie Titane, and Damon Galgut’s book The Promise

The former passes my ideal threshold of guaranteeing that the primary question audiences will ask themselves while, and even (especially?) after watching, is: “what the fuck is/was this/that about??”

Query 10 people, and you’ll get more than ten answers (some of which will probably be: “who the fuck cares?”). While the sheer “what the fuckery” of it all — not to mention the evident artistry and in-your-face style — gives you plenty to engage with throughout, anyone who uses engagement to figure out what the fuck is going on might be at a loss by the time the credits roll. Cliche comparison alert: the movie is like a Rorschach Test, designed to evoke — provoke? — a truly endless array of potential interpretations. Meaning resides firmly in the eyes of us beholders, albeit with constant chum thrown at us by the art.

But does this infinite open-endedness actually inhibit engagement? 

When a piece of art actively resists a comprehensive interpretation — or, to borrow my go-to nomenclature, a comprehensive “framework” — audiences are liable to throw up their hands and proclaim, “fuck it.” If it’s impossible to make sense of the whole, why bother?

This thought also struck me while reading The Promise. Though the plot’s straightforward enough to understand on its surface, the persistent mystery of the novel remains up in the air: who the fuck is narrating?? Either I’m a dumb-dumb (I’m definitely a dumb-dumb), or Galgut refuses to provide any conclusive indicators as to who’s telling the story. It’s interesting to consider possibilities, but since most guesses will have at least some evidence to support their argument, the whole exercise can ultimately feel boundless to the point of pointlessness.

Art like this navigates a tricky balance. Too much clarity can do too much of the work for the audience, while not enough can convince them to stop working at comprehension entirely. 

Then again, perhaps this paradigm of “making sense” is faulty? Can’t art be more about micro moments than macro interpretations? If the micro is sufficient, do we need the macro?

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