Sammy Sussman: Art, reinterpreted

Wednesday, March 14, 2018 - 3:16pm

This past week, I attended the Michigan Youth Ensemble’s concert at Hill Auditorium. The Michigan Youth Symphony Orchestra opened their portion of the concert with Michael Abels’s “Global Warming,” a short, eight-minute work for full orchestra. It was a slow, poignant piece full of haunting lyricism — certainly not what I expected of a piece about global warming.

Abels’s piece, it turns out, is not about global warming or anything relating to climate change. He composed the piece in 1991, intending the title to denote a warming of relations among separate cultures throughout the globe. On his website, Abels describes the piece as “folk-like melodies of disparate cultures ... interwoven into a dazzling musical tapestry.” It is about the global warming of relations, not the gradual rise in temperature throughout the planet. Though confusing to modern audiences, this title can be quite easily explained when one considers the historical context.

The phrase “global warming” first came into use in scientific literature during the mid-’80s. It did not become part of the American vernacular until the late ’90s or early 2000s. Many etymologists, in fact, point to Al Gore’s efforts during his vice presidency and his presidential campaign to raise awareness of climate change as the driving force behind the introduction of “global warming” into the everyday American vernacular.

Not only did the phrase “global warming” have a different meaning when Abels set about writing his piece, in all likelihood, it did not have any significant meaning to most Americans. Abels’s intention for the title of the piece, it seems, was to bring together two familiar concepts (the interconnectedness of our modern “global” culture and the “warming” of relations between cultures) in an unfamiliar linguistic and musical context. Our present understanding of this phrase, however, leads us to interpret the piece in new and unintended ways — during the performance, I struggled to separate my feelings about the current politics around climate related global warming from my understanding of the piece.

While this 20-year semantic shift may seem radical, shifts in meaning (and connotative meaning) of works of art occur all the time. Our propensity towards constant redefinition inevitably challenges the permanent and significant meaning that we attach to titles. Questions of original intent on the part of the creator and interpretative license on the part of the performer occur all the time, and while we may not always be cognizant of these questions, they exist below the surface of many great works of art.

Numerous words and phrases in Shakespeare’s great ouvre, for example, are understood quite differently today in comparison to their initial, intended meaning. My favorite is “the world’s mine oyster” from “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” This phrase appears in the dialogue between Falstaff and Pistol towards the middle of Act II. In modern times, we interpret this phrase as a statement about one’s potential and the treasures in front of one’s fingertips. In the play, however, Pistol qualifies the meaning of the phrase by vowing he will open this oyster “with sword.” Though modern audiences may interpret this phrase as a harmless or even positive expression of potential, Pistol uses it as a threat as to the violence he is willing to perpetrate to achieve his goals.

Another example of semantic shift is Nietzsche’s concept of the “übermensch” in his early works. In this instance, however, it is politics, and not widespread linguistic usage, that has obscured the original meaning of this word. When Nietzsche first used the phrase “übermensch,” he used it to describe a hypothetical higher state of man based not on religion but on atheistic moral principles. During the Nazi regime, however, this phrase was used to describe the supposed racial superiority of the Aryan race. For a long time after the fall of the Nazi regime, this word was ostracized for its racist political connotations. In the modern era, however, we have returned this word to its original, Nietzschean meaning — recent scholarship has provoked debate around what was once a clear consensus regarding Nietzsche’s anti-Semitic beliefs.

Many semantic shifts around historical figures and pieces of art also inevitably taint their modern interpretation. We can never know the full extent to which we interpret art differently than its creator intended us to. While many historical fallacies exist, a few widespread misconceptions come to mind.

Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement,” for example, is usually assumed to be among his best works, if not one of the best religious works in the Western canon. Historically, however, the work has undergone a radical critical transformation during its lifetime. While it is now immensely popular, it was controversial and condemned upon its unveiling. Many prominent Catholic officials criticized its many naked forms — students of Michelangelo were eventually asked to add loin cloths to the work. The religious implications of the work have also undergone a radical transformation; though it was criticized at the time of its unveiling for its portrayal of nakedness, “The Last Judgement” is now an iconic part of the Sistine Chapel and the larger Holy See.

Another famous example of widespread historical misconception is the life and career of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Much of the modern mysticism around Mozart’s life stems from the movie “Amadeus.” As in the movie, many people assume that Mozart died poor and largely forgotten; while some of his operas may have been popular, he was largely forgotten or neglected at the time of his death. However, during his lifetime, he was a popular and sophisticated composer. He was famous throughout his lifetime both for his skills at the keyboard and as a composer. He was frequently brought to the royal court to play before the leaders of Europe — while he may not have been as rich as our modern-day musical celebrities, he was never destitute or forgotten.

These semantic shifts have irrevocably altered our understanding of artists and artwork. If anything, the rate of these semantic shifts seem to be increasing as the internet allows for widespread misconceptions to spread as never before. While we may assume art to be independent of these changing semantics, it is important that we all approach art with our own prejudices.

Though these prejudices may be both founded and unfounded, they are almost always detrimental to full appreciation. And though we may assume artwork to exist in the past, our interpretations of art are illusive and ever-changing. Eventually, we must accept the imperfection in our understanding of art. While we may strive to be as historically accurate as possible in this understanding, we must acknowledge that we can never be perfect. When we look at a painting we also look into a mirror; both the painting and our understanding of how we should interpret the painting appear in front of us. While this prohibits us from ever making tautological statements about artwork, it also allows us to interact with art over and over again. And while it is the most confusing aspect of art, it is also the most beautiful.