Communication is one of the most critical skills humans can master. From writings as early as the ancient Sumerian written language, humans have slowly been developing the ability to communicate with one another in a multitude of ways. Written language, spoken language, communication through pictures, and even subtle forms of communication, like body language, are crucial ways that humans interact in order to build the path to a better future. Without communication, the collaborations required to build empires and civilizations could not exist.
Even as civilizations advance, so do their modes of communication. We have seen advancements in communication from the first printing press and the wire telegraph, stretching all the way to modern technologies such as smartphones, direct messaging, social media and email.
Typically, in any form of communication, there is a speaker, a medium of communication, and a receiver. Of course, communication can go back and forth between speakers and receiver, but the formula is the same: one person must send information to another person with the medium of communication in between.
The most common form of communication is spoken language, which is exchanged by hundreds of millions every day. One person speaks using a native language, potentially with some help of technology, and the person on the other end receives the message and responds.
I would like to suggest that art, in all forms, including dance, theater, writing, painting, sculpture, and music of all kinds, is the most advanced form of communication man can create. I don’t mean to say that these are advanced in the sense of their technological advancements, but their ability to effectively communicate a specific idea or concept to another person.
In the average conversation, you are able to openly explain exactly what you mean to say to the person you are speaking to. You communicate verbally what you intend to explain through language, and each word conveys a different mental and visual image that the receiving person visualizes while you speak. This is how we understand what a person is saying; we visualize each individual word in our mind and comprehend what they are saying using connections in our neuro-receptors that relate to our past experiences.
For example, I say “tree” and you imagine a tree. You will most likely imagine a tree different from the person next to you, and the tree you imagine can only exist based on all the trees you’ve seen in your life. In a conversation, we are constantly visualizing words and making comprehensive decisions based on our personal interpretation of what they are saying. When the speaker and the receiver’s common experiences connect, they are able to understand one another.
Art is the mastery of this transaction, of communicating one visualization of a complex idea or image to another person. The work of the artist is to have a “vision” for their work. Specifically, something from their life experience that often contains a complex combination of emotion, message and meaning. Then, using their art form as the medium of communication, they express their message to the audience member, which is then received and interpreted.
Unlike a conversation, art is not a back-and-forth communication. The artist presents a play, or a dance, or a painting, and the audience receives it and interprets it as the final product of their work. The only time an artist receives feedback is during the drafting or rehearsal process. So the responsibility lies on the shoulders of the artist to make sure that their final product effectively communicates exactly what they intend to express to the audience member. This is why the belief that art is up for interpretation is such a complex concept. Yes, inevitably the audience member will interpret the work based on their own perception of it, but it is also true to say that the artist must have an intended message when writing a piece, so really how we effectively evaluate whether or not a piece of art is successful is to critically evaluate how well the author communicates their intended message to the audience member through their selected medium.
While language allows us to communicate our thoughts, art allows us to communicate complex emotions and experiences. These ideas that are communicated in art are compound expressions, that often include multiple feelings, moods and concepts combined in one work of art. On the surface, one might watch a performance of Waiting for Godot, and, without any prior understanding of symbolism, believe the play was a simple exchange of two characters who, ultimately, achieve nothing. However, we know that this play is packed with philosophical meaning. The play itself asserts that the two individuals, Vladamir and Estragon, are like all of us, in that their life is simply a pointless waiting game for a purpose that never actually exists.
The set of the stage is as simple as can be; a country road and a tree. The interactions are simple as well, Vladamir and Estragon exchange basic conversation trying to decide how to spend their time waiting for Godot. Although the medium of communication is simple, the intended message is complex. This play has been widely interpreted and discussed all over the world. Beckett could have simply said to someone, “life is meaningless”, but by constructing a complex series of symbols, monologues and images, he was able to convey a much more complicated message and was able to communicate it in such a way that the audience could see, feel and experience his intended meaning.
This applies to any work of art, whether it be a dance, a painting, a song, or a book. Art is a medium of communication that allows for the complex exchange of emotions and ideas from one person to another. It improves upon the function of language, whose purpose is to express thought. Being an effective audience member means trying to interpret the intended meaning of the artist as closely as possible to best receive their work. That is the purpose of art, to be an exchange of beauty between two people.