THE BLOG
01/28/2013 04:19 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

Enough Stories

"What you see is what you see." -- Frank Stella, speaking about his work in 1964

There's a scene in Spielberg's Lincoln in which Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton exclaims to the President "No, you're going to tell another story. I can't bear one of your stories right now!" and storms out of the War Department telegraph office. Lincoln, unfazed, goes on to spin a lengthy, funny, and more or less apt tale.

So much art, or its interpretation, focuses on an inferred story or narrative. Too much "storifying" and I feel like running out of the room, too.

I recently attended a wonderful dance concert featuring a pas de deux titled Dark Made Light choreographed by Jock Soto, former Principal Dancer of the New York City Ballet, with original music by Laura Ortman, a White Mountain Apache musician and composer. Every single question from the audience following the performance was about the "story" of the piece. Jock Soto patiently and repeatedly explained that he didn't intend a narrative at all. No one seemed to accept that.

There is an undeniable urge to find familiar form in anything novel or difficult. (If a student in an art history class sees an unintended face in an abstract painting, you might as well dismiss class because from then on no one will see anything else). I think that the declaredly non-narrative art and ferocious reductionism of 1960's criticism frustrated people. It's maddening to feel you're missing something in a work of art, but I'm not sure we should put what we'd like to see back in. Not all art tells a story; an applied narrative can overlay, shadow, and betray the work itself.

If we approach and accept art on its terms, it will offer us much more than familiarity and comfort; if we think we already know the moral to the story, we stand to miss what is there. There may be no story.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.