Tuesday, 28 June 2011

What does it mean?


A few years ago I wrote a letter to the editor of a magazine in response to a short piece they wrote about a prize-winning poet. I don’t remember his name, but apparently on receiving his reward, he made a comment about people asking him to write poetry for weddings. For him to do that, he said, would be like an artist painting pet portraits. As a painter of pet portraits myself, I found that remark rather offensive and wrote to the magazine to say so.

I love doing pet portraits and would never consider it ‘beneath me’. For one thing, I love animals, but the main thing is that in recreating someone’s pet, I’m connecting with that person. The painting, though I enjoy doing it, is not self-indulgent in the way that some paintings are. I’m doing it for a particular audience and when I look at the portrait and feel satisfied, then I can be fairly sure that the pet’s owner will, too.

And now for something completely different –

In my dreams, I could frame this up, give it some deep and meaningful name and sell it for thousands -- if I was brazen enough. Art critics would go into a frenzy of scalp-scratching, dictionary searching to find the words to describe its nuances and subtleties. They would sit in rapture, staring at it for days in an effort to unlock its meaning. But the truth is this piece has no real meaning at all. I simply picked up my pastels one day and started messing around with line and shape, colour and shading. I had no particular concept in mind when I did it. Now that it’s finished, I can find something of myself in it that may have come out subconsciously, but few others know me well enough to guess what part of me that might be.


 When I first went to University, I was intent on doing a degree in English. It took only a very short time for me to decide that I hated it. Tutorials spent trying to find ‘what the author meant’ drove me to distraction. When a poem by Browning (which I’d loved and saw as a wonderful piece of imagery) was turned into a rather sordid description of love-making, I decided my future lay in another direction. I moved onto a degree in Anthropology. At least that was about real people. I didn’t have to find hidden meanings that I didn’t really feel existed.

My stories are, first and foremost, about people and the way they interact. As I write, themes do appear, but I don’t deliberately set out with particular themes in mind. I don’t try to be clever, to hide meaning within meaning. I’m not that clever myself. If the story doesn’t make some sort of immediate sense to the reader without deeper analysis, then I’ve not succeeded. Just as I work to make a pet’s eyes gaze out of the picture and connect with the viewer, I work at making the characters real to the reader. That is my main aim. When a reader actually understands the underlying themes as well (as this recent reviewer did), then that’s a huge bonus. Then they’ve understood a little of me. The last thing I’d want, though, is for people to spend hours trying to work out what I meant and coming up with all sorts of weird and wonderful conclusions. People should have better things to do with their time.

3 comments:

Sandra Patterson said...

People will make what they wish of stories. Literature is all in the interpretation which is why the same book can speak to so many diverse readers. I remember studying Mozart's Magic Flute, from which many hidden meanings have been drawn. Much significance was attached to the very high range of the Queen of the Night and what this might mean. In fact he wrote the part for his sister in law who happened to have a very high range. People see hidden messages in everything. I think it's human nature.
I like your painting by the way. To me it represents (puts on Brian Sewell voice) a space age pin ball machine, representing man's struggle to achieve tilt in the ever expanding universe. Or not.

Kate said...

Oh, I like that interpretation, Sandra! Definitely nothing close to what I see in there, but I don't have a problem with you interpreting it for yourself. Just as long as you don't claim it's what I meant!

Clare said...

I'm also put off by people putting interpretations on others' work and passing that off as the true meaning when it is solely their own interpretation - we all bring our own experience and background to what we see and read. (Not sure what that says about immediately seeing your picture as fallopian tubes - too many medical text books methinks! :) )