At a completely fundamental level, there are two kinds of participants in art: there are the artists, and there are the observers. Artists have the gift of intention, the ability to say what they want in the way that they want, for reasons clear to them. The observers also have a gift, and that is the gift of perception. The perceivers get to look at the art, that is, what the artist has to say, and interpret its meaning, be it on a realistic or abstract level. Something I’ve noticed more and more, especially with the talk about recent Tony nomination announcements and many surprisingly scathing reviews, is that there is an assumption that these two things, intention and perception, have to be the same thing in order for art to be “good.” I’d like to clear the air a little bit and say that nothing could be farther from the truth. Differences and variations in perception verses intention is what makes art live.

Rod Steiger as Jud and Shirley Jones as Laurey. (Don't worry, you can order this image as a print.)

Rod Steiger as Jud and Shirley Jones as Laurey. (Don’t worry, you can order this image as a print.)

Oklahoma!: A playwriting teacher of mine has a fascinating take on Oklahoma and various clues and inconsistencies in the piece leading to the possibility of Laurey carrying Jud’s baby.

I remember in high school, having to read the basics of English literature, dissecting every little nuance and color mentioned by the authors, analyzing the ever-loving shit out of it all, and wondering if the author had just wanted to write a story, no strings attached. Still, there was always something interesting about authors having used various symbols and allusions to point to alternative, sometimes hidden, intentions in their work. I felt like a spy, or a cryptographer, digging through the black and white words on the page, and looking for the little motifs and symbols that might be hidden behind them.

Caroline, or Change: I find that Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change has a huge amount of number symbolism, particularly with the numbers 3 & 4. (Seriously, though. There’s quite a bit of consistency there, about an academic paper’s worth…)

I recently came across an interesting link on Facebook about a student (who later became a literature professor), fed up with trying to “figure out” what the authors were intending, who then went on to write letters to a collection of famous authors, asking them four questions.

  • “Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing? If yes, please state your method for doing so. Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?”
  • “Do readers ever infer that there is symbolism in your writing where you had not intended it to be? If so, what is your feeling about this type of inference? (Humorous? annoying? etc.?)”
  • “Do you feel that the great writers of classics consciously, intentionally planned and placed symbols in their writing? Do you feel that they placed it there sub-consciously?”
  • “Do you have anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe to be pertinent to such a study?”

I’ll spare you most of the answers now, but you should really take a look at what the authors have to say. The answers are varied, but rather eye-opening. One of my favorites came from Isaac Asimov (one of my husband’s favorite authors), who said, when answering question #1 about consciously writing symbolism into his work:

“Consciously? Heavens, no! Unconsciously? How can one avoid it?”

Intention is completely varied among artists. Some are completely open, and some would rather you let them do the work, and perceive things the way they want you too.

Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris playing airplane. (Photo by Sara Krulwich.)

Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris playing airplane. (Photo by Sara Krulwich.)

Fun Home: You can track the airplane motive through the entirety of the musical (and the book, for that matter).

Very recently, with the production of Hunter Foster and Ryan Scott Oliver’s Jasper in Deadland, there was talk about the title character, Jasper (played by Matt Doyle), and his sexual orientation. There were many little things within the piece that, for me and for many others, hinted at something that might have explained his complicated relationship with Agnes. RSO answered these interpretations, saying adamantly that Jasper was straight. For me, the fact that they left it relatively open to interpretation (whether they intended to or not) made it a really exciting part of the piece as a whole.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: I remember seeing the recent production of Albee’s play produced by Steppenwolf, and having come out of the theatre completely questioning the actual existence of guests Honey and Nick, and the possibility that they are an invention of George and Martha, reflections of their former selves, based on the themes of memory and illusion in the piece.

Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon in ...Virginia Woolf on Broadway.

Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon in …Virginia Woolf on Broadway.

I love when there are little parts missing in a piece, or little things that seem intentionally strange, that point to ulterior motives.

Twister: The magically clean red truck in the film Twister (generally just attributed to lazy CGI) seems to be a perfect parallel to the strange relationship of Bill and his new fiancé Melissa, the climax of the film coming when the truck is driven into a huge tornado, releasing what was left of their relationship into the storm.

There are so many examples of open intention leading us to open perception in the arts. None of them are necessarily correct, but it’s still fun to find and track little seemingly insignificant things through a piece.

Kubrick: In the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick gives us one of the strangest and iconic endings you’ve ever seen, leaving the audience to sort out the meaning of the entire film. The director famously leaves things like this up to the audience. The same goes for A Clockwork Orange, subtly hinting at the lead character’s history of sexual abuse by his mother, or in The Shining, a film that was lead to hundreds of interpretations, from genocide to confessing to have filmed a false lunar landing for NASA. (There is a cool documentary called Room 237 about The Shining and its various interpretations on Netflix streaming.)

I find all of this fascinating. I think there’s something to be said for artists leaving things up to an audience, and for audiences to have their own mind when watching a piece, actively interpreting rather than passively observing. It’s all just symbolism. It’s all metaphor. Nothing has to be intended. Nothing has to be perceived. I don’t think there are wrong answers in interpretation. The magic of art lies in the way we interact as artists and observers. Audiences should trust the artists, and artists should trust their audiences. We are all individuals with many different backgrounds and histories, and when we observe or create art, we are doing it with all of this history in mind. No one will create or interpret in the exact same way. It’s all part of the human experience. It’s part of what makes us individuals. The arts allow us to create, celebrate, and communicate those differences in beautiful ways.

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