Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Nina Paley: Talking About Art is Creepy

On Thursday afternoon, July 1st of this year, I visited Nina Paley in her apartment in the West Village in Manhattan to interview her about Sita Sings the Blues. We spent a little over an hour talking about the Agni Pariksha episode and looking at screen shots. When that discussion had died down Paley indicated that she had something more that she wanted to say. So I cranked up the digital recorder again and we chatted, this time about the tricky business of talking about art.

* * * * *

BB: What’s your thought?

NP: My thought is that it makes me uncomfortable to talk about art this way. And it reminds me of talking about religion. I think that’s one of the problems with religion is that there’s a spiritual experience that’s then mediated by words. And that people latch onto the words and the words don’t actually help them with the spiritual experience which kind of has a mind of its own.

And, talking about art, art is a media. So it’s an artist that has an experience, and then . . . When you witness art, you’re witnessing an artist’s experience that’s been mediate by the artist. And then when you describe, you’re now mediating that. So now someone’s reading descriptions of something and it becomes, with each iteration, further and further removed from what it’s actually about.

BB: Uh huh.

NP: That’s all. [Unintelligible] I’m just so aware of inability of words, of the inadequacy of words, to really describe any of this. Or not describe – I mean you can describe it, but you can’t convey it.

And I also wonder because of what I’ve seen in art schools, where people are really into describing this stuff. And its like they become worse and worse artists. So I have a kind of fear of analyzing it, because I don’t want to become attached to the words.

I don’t want my experience of what’s going on with me being mediated that way. Because I have a direct line. The less I talk about it, the more direct the line is.

BB: So, well, OK, I mean . . .

NP: Does that happen to you though? I mean you analyze the hell out of music, but you still connect with music.

BB: Yeah. I mean, for me, making the music is one thing. Analyzing it is a different world. They just don’t interfere. I mean when I’m playing music, I’m playing music. I’m certainly not thinking about it. And when I’m analyzing it, that’s just something entirely different. And the same with literature or anything else.

When I’m stepping through these films, frame by frame or whatever. I don’t for a second think that this is the same thing as sitting there and watching it. It’s a different thing; it’s a different activity.

This is an issue that’s sorta’ at the heart of trying to figure out what the hell literary criticism is supposed to be.

NP: Well at least literary criticism is words talking about other words. This is art criticism. This is visual art criticism, music criticism.

BB: But you know, in the end it’s really the same. You use words in literature very differently than you use them in talking about literature. But some critics talk as though what they’re trying to do is recover the experience by writing criticism.

NP: That’s funny. Like of all the art criticism that I’ve read, I’ve gotten the most out of literary criticism. I’ve gotten a lot out of literary criticism. I’ve gotten very little, except may be a few laughs, out of visual art criticism. But I have gotten a lot out of literary criticism.

What would happen if you criticized a book by writing a song about it? Or like, maybe books should be reviewed as pictures, and maybe that would –

BB: But that means that only artists could review books.

NP: Well only literary critics can review books. So how is that any less fair? Right? Only art critics can review art.

BB: On the internet anyone can review whatever they damn well please.

NP: I actually think . . . I’m gonna’ defend what I said about, even though the words are being used differently, it’s still words commenting on words. And there’s actually pretty great pictures commenting on pictures. Even though the pictures are not the same, or using the same techniques, or saying the same thing. One is commenting on another one. But that can actually be . . . I certainly hear music commenting on music even though the notes aren’t being used they same way. The music is saying something about music. Actually I think there is something about the compatibility of . . .

Anyway, I want to eat food.

* * * * *

A couple of recent posts seem germane. It Shook Me, the Light is about a spiritual experience I had while playing music; it affected me deeply, but I can say how, or why, and I certainly cannot convey what transpired in those few moments. Q. Where’s Reality? A. Which One? is about living in multiple, but ultimately incommensurate, worlds, like art and art criticism. And you might as well look at Sex and Metaphysics and Language about Language.

Beyond that, I’ve written a bunch of posts about literary criticism over at The Valve. You can find an annotated list here. You could start with the oldest one, from 2005: From Frye to the Buffistas, with a glance at hermeneutics along the way.

Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

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