On Not ‘Getting It’
When one says, “I didn’t get it,” what does one really mean?
When one says, “I found it to be indulgent,” does that indicate a belief that the writer or artist has selfishly withheld meaning in order to maintain the hierarchy of things? Art transcends meaning. Meaning is low-brow. Confusion is the new ‘where it’s at’. Question mark?
When one goes to the beach, does one lie on the sand and watch the water? Or does one wade in until they can barely reach the bottom? I ask because I am wondering how actively another person prefers to experience something. I’m not asking to judge; rather, to learn. When one says it was indulgent, does one mean that it wasn’t created in direct correlation with their desired experience in mind¹?
I saw the new Enda Walsh play Arlington last week at St. Ann’s Warehouse, and was very taken with it. It did a lot of things that I wish my own art could do, some of which are only possible with a big fancy set that has parts that can catch on fire and then magically extinguish themselves, and some of which I have no real excuse for not doing. Like, for example, extraordinary precision between the language of the piece and the physical embodiment of the gesture to accompany the spoken word. I try to make that kind of work. Maybe I don’t ask enough of the performers who so generously work beside me, because I know that I’m not paying them enough to (force them? ask them to?) immerse their entire body and mind. I find myself, as creator, on the same beach watching the ocean, as opposed to practically drowning myself in the pursuit of a perfect physical gesture to accompany a certain word or phrase that needs to be abstracted in a particular moment. Some performances make you want to work harder (at your own craft, at life), and this was one of them. But then –
On the way out of the theater after seeing Arlington, a person loudly questioned those around them. “Does anyone know what that was about?” They were truly upset, sure. But their decision to openly declare derision regarding that which we had all just experienced – their inability, perhaps, to cope with even another second of ambiguity bubbling in their own mind – disturbed me. And, I mean, you can’t suddenly turn around and tell that person, “Yes, I did know what that was about, it was a futuristic riff on a sort of Beckettian landscape with modern technology and a love story and a really interestingly framed and extraordinarily well-performed dance piece in the middle, and if you couldn’t figure that out – and I thought it was presented pretty damn obviously, actually – maybe you should just, you know, stick to Broadway.”
Can you? Turn on someone like that, a fellow audience member, and berate them with meaning? Your meaning, I suppose. I think the above statement holds objective water, but there are others who didn’t like the dance part in the middle, which was actually my favorite occurrence in the piece. I guess you could call it “narrative dance,” in that it was packaged between two scenes that relied on dialogue, and so we had some contextual knowledge to apply to the movement section. Arlington, on the whole, dystopian, scary, driven by unknowns (why does that fish tank keep bubbling like that?), and within that world, a mostly silent desperate dance to one’s death. We know – sorry lobby person – exactly what’s at stake, and yet the dance goes on long enough that we’re on the verge of forgetting. Then, wham! We are reminded. A moment of grace, simultaneous destruction. And then there are new people in the room, and the dialogue starts anew.
My not-so-favorite part was when the play did something kind of like what I described above in my lobby fantasy of calling out the person who didn’t get it – I wouldn’t call it “berating,” but there was a long monologue sequence near the end with video accompaniment that made great effort to, in case we felt we had been left out, provide us with some extra meaning, like additional salt on an already salty entree. So, even though that happened, still, this person in the lobby, yelling things? That monologue wasn’t enough for them?
When one says they didn’t get it, are they really just secretly referring to their own overall experience in life, trying to find a place, desperately seeking out a comfortable space to rest their mind and take in some good old entertainment, and yet, here again, some artistic asshole is trying to challenge perceptions, disrupt complacency, and test one’s ability to make meaning from a carefully constructed series of images, ideas, and bodies?
You know what? Let’s go to the beach. No need to pack the swimsuits, but for god’s sake, Carl, don’t forget to bring the towel.
¹Let us also agree, for the sake of the argument, that some things made by artists exist almost purely as (intended) indulgence, an exercise in pretension. There’s a difference between ‘not getting it,’ and ‘impossible to get.’ The ‘impossible to get’ piece exists in its own substrata of performance with different parameters regarding how to experience and evaluate it, and is not the intended subject of this article.