Start Making Sense by Stop Making Sense

Should abstract art clarify the abstraction so that audiences can cohere it into some sort of comprehensible whole?   

This question cuts to the heart of what we value when evaluating art: how much we enjoy the experience of engaging with the art in the moment? Or our conception of the finished product after it’s all said and done?

But how about art that challenges this binary? Two examples:

On one hand, a work’s confusion while we’re in the middle of it can distance us from the proceedings…until the end enlightens the entirety, and we realize what we were missing — perhaps intentionally so — all along, at which point the amorphous blob reshapes into something more manageable, prompting a reconsideration of everything that came before, to be assembled and reassembled as we further ponder, justifying aspects and stretches that previously fell on deaf ears, blind eyes, and perplexed brains.

Such a play can be found at St. Ann’s Warehouse right now…which I shall tackle later this week (give a man some time to think, damn). 

Today, however, let’s focus on the other hand: art that rivets us throughout its duration into trying to piece together any sort of overarching meaning, even though the pieces seem to never add up to a legible picture.

Why is the latter clause deemed to be a flaw, and an objective criticism? Isn’t it worth mulling the possibility that our concluding quizzicality is by design?

I see no such mulling in The New York Times’ review of Clubbed Thumb’s California, specifically in these sentiments: 

“California” is like a maddening Google Map offering confusing routes from starting point A to destination infinity…Yet these elements do not jell, and it often feels as if Harnetiaux has an unsure grasp on what she is trying to say, or how to say it…Being hard to pinpoint can be allusively mysterious, or it can come across like obfuscation.






Harnetiaux’s play and Will Davis’s production thrillingly confound; their aesthetics and dramaturgy deliberately skirt easy explanation; our perspective on what the show is and what exactly it’s up to constantly shape-shifts as the road trip twists and turns, veering into wildly unexpected and perhaps disparate terrain. Critic Elisabeth Vincentelli acknowledges the intrigue in figuring out what the fuck is going on here…yet bemoans our inability to figure it out through what’s ultimately provided.

Who says we need clear resolution…or any resolutions at all? Why do we hanker to come away with tidily packaged takeaways and summaries? You really believe California‘s creative team isn’t aware of the dumbing effect it’ll have on the audience? Is it fair to knock their approach through our inherently limited filters, instead of meeting the art where it wants to reside, on its own designated terms and merits?

Clubbed Thumb’s motto speaks to the modus operandi of their programming: “Funny, strange, provocative.” For California: check, check, and check. 

Also: the run started this past weekend! We demean an evening of theater that can’t be understood by the time the curtain drops? A few days of noggining weren’t enough to solve the riddle? Isn’t this a testament to California‘s breadth and depth? Nebulous art has never stuck with you, entering into a conversation with your daily life — and other art — that might reveal insights eons after walking out of the theater, with scant traces of such revelations even piquing interest during your initial viewing? 

Is it “obfuscation”…or do the creators aim to position the audience behind the art, perpetually in pursuit of catching up, even if there’s nothing solidly resolute to catch up to and with?

Shall we delve into some existential philosophy? Have you ever felt like the world is becoming increasingly impossible to make total sense of (same as it ever was)? No matter how much you arrange and rearrange existence’s constituent parts, a unified theory answering all our puzzlement remains out of reach. Why can’t some art channel and reflect this defiance? What if “maddening / confusing / not jelling / unsure grasp / obfuscation” is the point? You’re under no obligation to love it, but writing it off as a fault? To quote a modern sage:

P.S. What you just read applies equally to Men, in movie theaters presently.  

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