Interpreting Art: “You’re Doing It Wrong”

So. Earlier this week, Amanda Palmer — of recent TED Talk fame — published a poem on her personal blog. And certain corners of the internet exploded.

I mean, that’s the gist of it.

The poem was titled “A Poem for Dzhokhar“, and it made some people really, really angry. And it made other people really, really defensive. And there’s been a lot of interesting conversation swirling around ever since.

I’m not overly familiar with Palmer’s work. I’m not really interested in discussing her merits as an artist, or the merits of this poem, or the ethics of publishing a poem like this so shortly after tragedy. The internet has thoroughly beaten that dead horse.

What I am very interested in, is this tweet:

And then in her follow-up blog post, this:

a lot of the poem got misinterpreted.

it is always very interesting when people misinterpret art, and then get angry about it.

So basically: Readers, you’re doing it wrong. You’re not supposed to have that reaction. You’re supposed to view it this way.

Now. Artists have intentions when they create a piece of work, whether it’s music or poetry or sculpture or macaroni noodles or whatever. Artists (including writers!) create with an agenda, hoping that people will see their work in a certain light. They have an intended way for the audience to understand that art. And this is not a bad thing! Of course you have certain intentions. That’s why you created the damn thing in the first place.

But once you put that art out into the world — all bets are off. It’s no longer just you and your art in your nice little art cocoon of sunshine and bubbles and hi-fives. You have given that art over to the audience. Into our grubby little paws. And the audience member gets to form her own relationship with the art — and yes, her own interpretations.

The audience has no idea of your intention. And you know? I don’t really think we need to know. In fact, we usually shouldn’t. Art speaks for itself. But what it says is going to depend dramatically on the person reading it, viewing it, touching it — on that particular person’s history and preferences and prejudices.

And that’s how it’s supposed to be. We get to each have our own reaction and decide whether that book, that painting, that poem, works for us. As individuals. Regardless of your intentions.

Now, because this is the internet, it needs to be said: disagreeing with a person’s artwork is not a valid reason for personal attacks. Let’s just repeat that: disagreeing with art does not validate personal attacks. Which, unfortunately, is what a lot of internet comments turn into.

But when people interpret art in different ways, it opens the door for discussion and critique. And isn’t that the point? We don’t create art in a void. We create it for others to experience. If we all viewed a piece of art in the same way — well, literary criticism would die a swift death, that’s for sure. The different interpretations keep things interesting.

You’re not “doing it wrong.” You read the poem how you read the poem. Good for you. Let’s discuss this one, and move on to more art.

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