Experiencing Art

In writing reviews, I look for films that hold some deeper resonance or artistic merit, something I can latch onto like a thread to further unravel, forming a reflection. Yet there are some films which resonate with me so profoundly that it is a struggle to think of translating them in some way or shape into the medium of language. This reveals, in a sense, the divide between the image and the word, and the limitation of language.

The image is what gives a movie its special power and significance. An image can strike and affect us in a way unlike anything else. Think, for example, of the face of a suffering person: perhaps a close family member or friend you saw going through a hard time, or even the face of a complete stranger you saw on the news in connection with some calamity. Such a face can remain in our minds with almost a haunting endurance. Of course, images can be evoked by good writing as well, and when I think back on many of my favourite novels, I am reminded of a particularly potent image of a scene between characters or of something that occurred in the plot. Yet this is still different from the way in which the image confronts us so boldly in the course of a film. Sometimes the sharp detail of this image affects our emotions in an immediate and powerful manner we are unable to describe.

This is where the limitation of language comes in. How do we describe the power of a film in words when we are not sure precisely why it is powerful or why it had such a strong effect on us? There are two considerations that come to mind here when I think of this difficulty. Firstly, the emotional effect of an image or a film is neither universal nor objective. This lack of objectivity is not restricted to the domain of film. All art (literature, visual art, music) has a subjective dimension. Since we are talking right now about the emotional effect of a piece of art, “lack of objectivity” does not imply that there is no standard of value in judging and appreciating art. On the contrary, I believe strongly that there is an objective dimension as well and that some art can be said to be better than others (though this does not deny that art judged as “not good” can still produce good or be said to be a good). However, that is the subject for another post. We cannot judge art’s objective value by emotion alone, and when we are talking about emotional resonance, we must acknowledge that emotions are both individual and incommunicable. This means that emotions stem from the unique character of the one who feels them, and also that emotions cannot be transferred directly from person to person as one could do with factual information.

All this leads to the recognition of subjectivity in art and specifically in the personal experience of art. Your experience with a particular film will necessarily be different than my experience with the same film, even if we are in the same room watching it at the same time and both acknowledge it to be a great artistic creation. The second consideration needed in answering the above question is not about the relation between persons but the relation between one’s own experiences and self. There might be a certain film which I experienced in a certain way when I watched it for the first time. Perhaps I found it especially moving or was even moved to tears. Now let’s say I watch the same film again a month later. Even though the movie is the same and I am the same person, my experience with it will not be exactly the same. If I enjoyed the movie the first time, it is likely that I will enjoy it again, but the experience will be a new experience, connected to a teeming mass of other factors intertwined with this new moment that were not present in the old one.

To some, this might conclusion might seem negative, even depressing about art. If something made us feel good or truly alive, then we want to be able to recapture that magic, to feel the same way by replicating the experience. The resignation that we can never feel just that way again, that we will never have another identical experience, might be discouraging. To me, on the other hand, I think this is something beautiful and exciting about art, something which might even be said to give it its value. Art is not a static, motionless thing. It is not dead but alive: it is alive and breathing, changing and shimmering in the different lights of day. Because of this, it is always possible to see something new inside of art, to find some new beauty within it or within ourselves when we look at it. If we open ourselves to receiving art then we can allow this changing thing to change us as well, and we can allow it to speak to us where we are now (rather than where we were then).

I think this also answers our earlier question about how to describe a film, and by extension, how to describe any experience with art. In a sense, the answer is that the answer doesn’t matter, not really. Language may have limitations, but these limitations give it its fragility, and ultimately, its beauty. It doesn’t matter if we cannot transfer exactly our feelings or experiences; our self-expressions concerning these experiences contain their own limitations and their own fluctuations, and thus they are able to move and breathe like art itself. They enter into the sphere of art, becoming art and becoming beautiful. It doesn’t matter, then, if these expressions are understood by another. It matters that they exist at all and that they matter to the person who produced them and dreamed them into being. And if the expression was created in sincerity and truth, then it will always have the power to speak to someone else in some new, beautiful and unexpected way.