the value of not explaining
I’ve been wanting to write about groups of inspirational people, united by a common characteristic. One group I particularly admire are those successful across fields, those who can compete if they’re an athlete but more those who can create using different mediums. Auteurs really.
Alex Garland is one of my favourite. He’s preternaturally talented, and thus annoyingly successful, being about 27 when his debut novel The Beach became a phenomenon. It’s a fascinating and very fun book, documenting a way of travelling and experiencing the world that no longer exists.
Garland has moved from novels to screenwriting to computer games to directing and is now developing a tv series. He’s proven his ability to make thoughtful art, using different mediums to express himself, referencing classics of each kind in his work. It’s rare for someone to be able to command their material so adroitly but subtly.
I won’t go into depth on Garland - that was something that I don’t have the time for now. In my hunt for supporting material to make myself seem clever, I came across a quote that I’d prefer to discuss instead.
Trusting the audience is an act of bravery and vulnerability from a creator. Winston Churchill’s famous (and apparently misattributed) quote, ‘The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter’, suggests that in the ultimate theatre, that of politics, democracy is a great act of trust, a vote of confidence in the electorate and their capacity to make wise decisions. In that way, democracy is an act of bravery.
It’s no different with art. Make something too oblique and few will understand. Make something too populist, too obvious and you compromise yourself. Some people are more ok with this than others.
Narrative space though, is one of the greatest devices in art. It gives the audience the opportunity to draw their own conclusion, to add their own history to the piece or to make their own inferences about motive. Giving them this responsibility is an act of bravery.
Garland is decrying the need in modern culture for everything to be explained. Consider the difference between the original Star Wars trilogy, with its huge narrative gaps and suggestions of a fully formed universe, and the disappointing explanations provided by the prequels that denuded the originals of some magic and mystique.
Who has the right to art? Is it the creator or the audience? Do you have the right to be aggrieved as a creator if the audience don’t like what you’ve presented to them?
Sometimes the rush to explain things, the need for answers, leads to solutions that were never intended but are taken as gospel. Witness this poet failing to answer questions about her own poems on a children’s test.
I agree with Garland that art should leave us considering something, even if the narrative is complete. I often think about sitting in front of a giant deep red and black Rothko canvas, not having a clue what it was or what it meant, knowing only how it made me feel. His films Annihilation and Ex Machina are both left dangling, the implications of the endings unclear and left open to the audience.
When something is totally revealed to us, it often leaves us disappointed. The explanation is often everything we wanted but it rarely lives up to our expectations. If a creator can create and then trust the audience to draw their own conclusions and inferences, personal to them, that enhance and respect what they’ve experienced, they become complicit in the act of creation.
Perhaps we need mysteries, but don’t necessarily need answers.