context and meaning

Here’s David Pledger (again) writing on theconversation.com:

Whether economic, philosophical, social or cultural, the context in which an artwork is created and the complicity of the artist within that context is intrinsic to its meaning.

and then …

… does an artwork ever have meaning in and of itself? Is it possible to separate the meaning of the Mona Lisa from its historical, cultural and exhibition contexts?

This reminds me of a book by Thomas McEvilley called Art and Discontent that Lil Boyce introduced to me some years ago. In it, McEvilley has an essay called Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird in which he makes a lucid case for how the content of an art work includes things like:

  • content arising from verbal supplements supplied by the artist
  • content arising from the temporal duration of the artwork
  • context arising from the context of the work
  • content arising from the work’s relationship to art history
  • content that accrues to a work as it progressively reveals its destiny through persisting in time [1]

I’ve since been checking out a book called A Good Night Out by John McGrath[2] – I suspect it might be a standard text for drama students from way back – and in it he writes:

It is simply that to be good as theatre, plays now must ruthlessly question their ideological bases, the set of assumptions about life on which they are built, and should have a questioning, critical relationship with their audience, based on trust, cultural identification and political solidarity. These attitudes behind the work are always what plays are really ‘about’[3].

Part of my interest in making performance is attempting to understand the assumptions – and contexts – within which I am making that performance.


  1. McEvilley, Thomas. 1993. Art and Discontent. Documentext. pp.71–79  ↩
  2. This book was recommended to me by Christina Eliot at The Place, London  ↩
  3. McGrath, John. 1981. A Good Night Out. London: Methuen. pp.98–99  ↩
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