Objects may not be silent, but what difference does that make if you don’t speak their language?
I’ve been doing a bit more musing on some of the anecdotes Stephanie Weaver shared during her keynote at the recent Interpretation Australia conference (first instalment here). She mentioned the often-heard claim that objects “speak for themselves” (a view that appears especially prevalent in art circles), thus rendering interpretation irrelevant at best, interfering at worst. In response, one time she challenged some “speak for themselves-ists” with an image of a carburettor, similar to this one:
Did the object speak to them about what it was? Was it a particularly fine or noteworthy example? In the absence of any relevant mechanical or technical knowledge, Stephanie’s interlocutors were stumped. They accepted that this object was mute in the absence of interpretation (at least to them).
But Stephanie also told the story of the object that spoke to her immedately, profoundly, and so powerfully it moved her to tears – no interpretation required:
In this case, the painting was the trigger for an avalanche of meaning that lay within Stephanie’s own life experience. It was in the Musee d’Orsay, during a much-anticipated and long-awaited trip to Paris. The painting was beatifully presented in a gallery context. The content resonated with Stephanie’s childhood as a dance student. And of course there is an aesthetic appeal that needs no overt explanation*.
This made me think that the “objects are mute” vs “objects speak for themselves” debate may be missing an important nuance: perhaps objects do speak, at least some of the time, although we as visitors may not necessarily be conversant in the language any given object speaks. And if not, the object is as good as mute to us.
Some communication transcends language: in another conference session, Pamela Harmon-Price described how a Japanese tour guide used timing, gesture and body language to convey considerable meaning, despite Pamela not understanding a word of what was said. Drawing analogy to objects, there may be some aspects of an object: form, colour, positioning, and so on, that can speak to us on some level.
But then there is the Tower of Babel of other languages any given object may speak. And of course the same object may speak multiple languages (the languages of technology, or art, or social history). And that is where interpretation can step in – conveying that meaning to those who don’t know enough of the language enough to understand it.
On a radio interview held with Stephanie, Pamela and John Pastorelli during the conference, they reflected on the fact that people outside the cultural sector tend to assume “interpretation” has something to do with languages. Perhaps on some level they’re right: it’s just that it’s intepreting the languages of objects and places rather than other people.
So next time you see an object that you think “speaks for itself” – ask yourself: can you only hear it because you already know the language?
*At least to people enculturated into a Western perspective of aesthetics. Although there are some aspects of aesthetics that may be ‘hard wired’, so to speak, yet others will be a product of the culture we live in, and we deem those as “universal” at our peril!