Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Why can't we have the arts interpreting the arts again?

One of the things you notice when you go to country houses, and old art galleries is that there was a period from about 1700 to about 1850 when many famous painters spent most of their time painting 'classical' scenes. These were paintings that depict famous scenes from classical mythology, mostly Greek and Roman. Anyone reading this, who has paid visits to these places will remember staring at intertwined beasts and semi-naked men and women, half-man-half-beast creatures, and naked women in woods or by the sea. We peer at the caption and see a classical name or two and then rake through our memory to see if we can remember the exact myth or epic the scene were looking at comes from. 

The point here is that these highly rated paintings were 'interpretations'. They were ways for painters to say something about love, sex, danger, hope, and many other features of human existence using or adapting a moment from a written text - by, say, Homer or Virgil and the like. And this was a high status activity. It was high art. It was rated. It was high art. 

Now race forwards to our classrooms and we see children and school students poring over 'texts' - stories, poems and plays, in order to - to what? To 'comprehend' them ('comprehension') to show that they can 'retrieve' what's there (supposedly), to grasp what has been 'inferred', to show that they can understand 'structure' and 'sequence', to show why a text or parts of a text is 'effective' (who decides what is effective? People who write exam questions?), and, quite often, what 'the author intended' (how do they know? are they mind-readers?).  All this is sometimes called 'interpretation' but it really isn't. Interpretation is a broader idea that may well involve some if not all of these previous aspects but something more, something that involves weighing up possibilities, including opinion, possibilities, provisional ideas, discussing why and how we come to conclusions about poems, stories and plays, making informed guesses (which is what most criticism is anyway!). I've put my thoughts about how we can create more open criticism into classrooms in my three booklets: 'Poems and Stories for Primary and Lower Secondary Schools', 'Why Write? Why Read?' and 'Writing for Pleasure' - all available via my website. 

However, even if this idea of interpretation is broader - and I would argue - more valid, it leaves out the notion that the arts themselves are a valid form of interpretation - the very thing that those artists did with Greek and Roman myths. Somewhere along the line in the creating of schools, schooling, and the modern curriculum, the people who run the show downgraded the use of the arts to interpret the arts. It's as if the only thing that's valid and worthy is 'textual analysis' - a craft originally created and perfected for the purpose of divining God's intentions from biblical texts - or 'exegesis' as it was called. Education imported 'exegesis' and applied it to literature and put the methods of such painters as David or indeed the pre-Raphaelites like Burne-Jones out the door. 

I would like to re-state the case for the arts as one way to interpret in valid and important ways. When I say, for example, that one of the ways we can write poems is to read a poem and then say to ourselves, 'I can write like that' - that's a way of interpreting a poem. It may be that we will adopt the poem's sound, or shape, or imagery, or meaning, or we may be 'triggered' by one single aspect of a poem: a mood, a phrase, a suggestion. These are interpretations. They involve selecting an aspect, generalising it in our heads - perhaps in an instantaneous or intuitive way - and turning that generalisation back into a form, a shape, a set of words that conveys something that is in common with the original. This is no trivial act. It is in fact a step towards abstraction, finding something in common between two things, two phenomena. 

To draw, sing, dance, make films, make pottery, write poems, stories, plays in response to any other art form, or - as we're talking about here, literature - is to my mind one way to interpret. In a classroom context, it can be the first, the middle or the last way. Wherever it sits, it will be valid and can, if we want it to , contribute to the written analyses required by the education regime, or they can be treated as entirely valid in themselves, boosting pupils' sense of entitlement to explore texts through a medium they are confident in. 

In turn, these new creations - let's say it's a film shot on a mobile phone - can then become sources of conversation and debate about how the one relates to the other. These conversations will inevitably include generalisations and abstractions - the sort of thing we rate highly in education: 'higher order thinking' as we call it. Indeed, we watch TV art programmes when clever art critics do just that - explore the interplay between e.g. myth and painting, emotions and ideas. 

This short blog, then, is a plea for us to not forget the arts as an interpretive method. A poem about a poem; a picture about a moment in a play; a film about a feeling in a novel and hundreds of other uses of the arts to interpret the arts.