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The Open Work
Umberto Eco, (born 1932, Italy) is a novelist and literary theorist. His interests, expressed in both his theoretical and novelistic work, include Medieval Studies, aesthetics, semiotics, and the history of knowledge. The Open Work is a collection of essays pre-dating his move toward semiotics. It was originally published in 1962 as Opera Aperta and has been through several versions with essays added, revised or dropped.
Eco began writing on the concept of the open work in 1958. Citing artists as diverse as Munari, James Joyce, Bertolt Brecht, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Alexander Calder, Eco defines open works as having multiple interpretations and lacking any sort of conclusiveness. By virtue of their formal and conceptual open-endedness, Eco contends, open works are symptomatic of the end of universal narratives and the instability of truth that had defined modernism since the late nineteenth century, when poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé began to question the capacity of language and words to carry any stable or coherent meaning. Drawing on his research into the medieval period, when interpretations were limited to the literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical, Eco explains that an open work, in contrast, “remains inexhaustible insofar as it is “open,” because in it an ordered world based on universally acknowledged laws is being replaced by a world based on ambiguity, both in the negative sense that directional centers are missing and in a positive sense, because values and dogma are constantly being placed into question.”
Two definitions of ‘open work’ seem to emerge in Eco’s text. First, an ‘open work’ is any work that is not framed, delimited, or self-contained by its own structures. Open works suggest that the meaning, the narrative, and the space go beyond the work’s conceptual or physical ‘edges,’ reaching out to our world. The stability and balance of closed forms—created, for example, by symmetrical and self-contained arrangements in Renaissance art—are replaced by movement and momentary effects. Open works are dynamic rather than static. However, this does not mean that they are unfinished. At the same time, a ‘finished work’ (opera conclusa) can still be considered ‘open’ because of the continuous germination of internal relationships of meaning discovered by users in the act of interpretation. For instance, the Christian Scriptures can be read at literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogic (i.e. spiritual) levels.
Second, an ‘open work’ could be a work of art that is intentionally left ‘open’ to co-creation. In this case, the collaboration of another agent/agency is not only expected but actually ‘programmato’ [programmed into the works]. Examples of open work in this second category are diverse and involve different arts, media, and forms of programmazione [programming]. One of the examples Eco uses is Bertolt Brecht’s theatre. Typically, Brecht’s drama revolves around ambiguity and does not provide solutions to social existence; it is up to the audience to draw their own conclusions. In this case, openness serves as a tool to enact revolutionary and reflective pedagogy. Yet ‘open work’ could also imply physical and material involvement. Eco describes this category as ‘works in movement’, especially in relation to plastic arts, where natural or induced movement can produce different effects. Alexander Calder’s Mobiles (Mariposa) (1960), for instance, are basic structures that can move in the air and assume different spatial positions and dimensions. When it comes to programming, ‘open work’ can imply various forms of co-agency, from the scientific calculation of possible interactions between the work of art and audiences, to coding specific forms of interactivity between the author, the machine, and the users. These forms clearly depend on the intentions of the authors, but they also have a wide margin for unpredictability, given that the agency is shared with machines and other users.
The historical context in which Eco puts openness is essential for his thesis and for understanding the text. He feels that this type of work, open work, is the work of his age. Because of the new paradigms in science the artist realizes he or she can no longer use the old forms. The old forms were developed for representing an ordered, hierarchical and mappable reality. Inheriting a set of univocal conventions, the artist breaks or subverts the formal language to create work which allows varied interpretations, reflective of a contemporary worldview which is less hierarchical and more pluralistic.
Open works convey this perpetual state of instability that defines the contemporary context, laying it bare for audiences to contend with and to try to understand. They are, Eco argues, epistemological metaphors, expressions of the world and how we come to know it: in a state of constant change and disarray. However, Eco’s notion of the open work is neither a dejected resignation that meaning and truth are impossible, nor a celebration of relativism.
“The possibilities which the work’s openness make available always work within a given field of relations…We may well deny that there is a single prescribed point of view. But this does not mean complete chaos in its internal relations. Therefore…the “work in movement” is the possibility of numerous different personal interventions, but it is not an amorphous invitation to indiscriminate participation.”
Open works represent a shared, material condition of indeterminacy; they do not succumb to it. However multiple, the meanings of open works are dependent on the mechanics of the work, how it positions the audience, and how it enables them to act and think within this discrete field. The work’s form allows for an openness that is circumscribed.
Claude Shannon and Abraham Moles
To describe the limits of the open work, Eco utilizes insights gleaned from information theory, a field that was foundational to the development of computers. Information theory was launched as a field by the American engineer and mathematician Claude Shannon in “The Mathematical Theory of Communication,” published in 1948 in the Bell System Technical Journal.
In Shannon’s theory, information is defined as a statistical measure of the probability that a signal will be accurately reproduced after traversing a channel. Such a measure does not pertain to the precise meaning of the message but instead diagrams the outer limits of the types of signals that can be accurately received.
Shannon’s definition of information provided Eco with a concrete visualization for how open works produce what Eco calls “fields of possibilities” when it comes to meaning. Information theory tries to discern the outer limits of what is possible to communicate; open works, Eco argues, do the same.
Eco takes more inspiration from the French theorist Abraham Moles, who applies information theory to art in Information Theory and Esthetic Perception (1958).
“What is transmitted [by art] is complexity,” Moles asserts. Moles outlines how complexity is always relative, contingent not only on the form of other artworks (i.e., aesthetic conventions) but on the form of the audience—their expectations, predilections, and a slew of other unpredictable but material, social factors. The best artworks, Moles explains, occupy the outer edges of what is expected, pushing the boundaries of the audience while not straying so far afield as to be illegible or ugly. In Opera Aperta, Eco echoes Moles when he writes:
“even an art that upholds the values of vitality, action, movement, brute matter, and chance rests on the dialectics between the work itself and the “open-ness” of the “readings” it invites. A work of art can be open only insofar as it remains a work; beyond a certain boundary, it becomes mere noise…One might say that rather than imposing a new system, contemporary art constantly oscillates between the rejection of the traditional linguistic system and its preservation—for if contemporary art imposed a totally new linguistic system, then its discourse would cease to be communicable. The dialectic between form and the possibility of multiple meanings, which constitutes the very essence of the “open work,” takes place in this oscillation.”
Open-endedness operates on many levels in Eco’s notion of the open work: as a formal characteristic (movement), a message about reality, a metaphor for epistemology, and a model for the political function of art. It is also a quality of aesthetic experience, which Eco ties to the structural composition of the work.
Arte informale becomes for him a primary example of how a lack of clarity is the most precise way to represent the state of the world. To then explain how this affects the audience, Eco turns to the example of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings: “[T]he disorder of the signs, the disintegration of the outlines, the explosion of the figures incite the viewer to create his own network of connections.” This pleasurable, even empowering, experience of infinite possibility is the open work’s raison d’être. “The ‘reader’ is excited by the new freedom of the work, by its infinite potential for proliferation, by its inner wealth and the unconscious projections that it inspires.” “Openness,” he concludes, “is the guarantee of a particularly rich kind of pleasure that our civilization pursues as one of its most precious values, since every aspect of our culture invites us to conceive, feel, and thus see the world as possibility.”
In Motion, In Movement, In Progress
The deliberate and systematic ambiguity of the open work is associated by Eco with a well-known feature of modern art, namely its high degree of formal innovation. Ambiguity, for Eco, is the product of the contravention of established conventions of expression: the less conventional forms of expression are, the more scope they allow for interpretation and therefore the more ambiguous they can be said to be. In traditional art, contraventions occurred only within very definite limits, and forms of expression remained substantially conventional; its ambiguity, therefore, was of a clearly circumscribed kind. In the modern open work, on the other hand, the contravention of conventions is far more radical, and it is this that gives it its very high degree of ambiguity; since ordinary rules of expression no longer apply, the scope for interpretation becomes enormous. Moreover, conventional forms of expression convey conventional meanings, and conventional meanings are parts of a conventional view of the world. Thus, according to Eco, traditional art confirms conventional views of the world, whereas the modern open work implicitly denies them.
In the present cultural context, the phenomenon of the "work in movement" is certainly not limited to music. There are, for example, artistic products which display an intrinsic mobility, a kaleidoscopic capacity to suggest themselves in constantly renewed aspects to the consumer. A simple example is provided by Calder's mobiles or by mobile compositions by other artists: elementary structures which can move in the air and assume different spatial dispositions. They continuously create their own space and the shapes to fill it.
"Open" works, insofar as they arc in movement, are characterized by the invitation to make the work together with the author and that on a wider level (as a subgenus in the species "work in movement") there exist works which, though organically completed, are "open" to a continuous generation of internal relations which the addressee must uncover and select in his act of perceiving the totality of incoming stimuli. Every work of art, even though it is produced by following an explicit or implicit poetics of necessity, is effectively open to a virtually unlimited range of possible readings, each of which causes the work to acquire new vitality in terms of one particular taste, or perspective, or personal performance.
The poetics of the "work in movement" (and partly that of the "open" work) sets in motion a new cycle of relations between the artist and his audience, a new mechanics of aesthetic perception, a different status for the artistic product in contemporary society. It opens a new page in sociology and in pedagogy, as well as a new chapter in the history of art. It poses new practical problems by organizing new communicative situations. In short, it installs a new relationship between the contemplation and the utilization of a work of art.In short, it is an "open" situation, in movement. A work in progress.
The apparent spontaneity of Calder's work is no accident. It is rather what John Dewey describes as "complete absorption in subject matter that is fresh, the freshness of which holds and sustains emotion…Staleness of matter and obtrusion of calculation are the two enemies of spontaneity of expression. Reflection, even long and arduous reflection, may have been concerned in the generation of the material. But an expression will nevertheless manifest spontaneity if that matter has been vitally taken up into a present experience."
Calder, writing on his early works and inspiration from the circus, explained that his kinetic works adapted the time-honored tradition on which its performers based their routine. "Because the actual world, that in which we live, is a combination of movement and culmination, of breaks and reunions, the experience of a living creature is capable of esthetic quality. The live being recurrently loses and re-establishes equilibrium with his surroundings. The moment of passage from disturbance to harmony is that of intensest life…In a world made after the pattern of ours, moments of fulfillment punctuate experience with rhythmically enjoyed intervals…a world that is finished, ended, would have no traits of suspense and crisis, and would offer no opportunity for resolution. Where everything is already complete, there is no fulfillment."
A later visit to Mondrian’s studio was to mark the turning which led to all Calder's most characteristic future developments. It was what gave him, as he described it, "the necessary shock." Mondrian's large, light, irregular studio was like one of his own pictures—or a spatial translation of one. Calder afterwards recalled how exciting the first view was to him, "with a cross light (there were windows on both sides), and I thought at the time how fine it would be if everything there moved…”
The modern world was a world of movement. Modern art should embody it. Calder was then dealing with motion not in any representational frame of reference, but for its own sake. Form had been reduced to its geometrical bases, motion had followed suit. Calder felt that to combine two or more simple movements with contrasting rates of speed gave the best effect because, while simple, they are capable of infinite combinations. He had left synthesis for essence; he had come from the naturalistic to the abstract. Still these movements had kept a liveliness and variety, perhaps due to the fact that their indirect inspiration was a caricature of nature not the bare rhythms of a machine.
Calder’s approach to sculpture was so removed from the accepted formulas that he had to invent a new name for his forms in motion. It was Marcel Duchamp who dubbed these works ‘mobiles,’ a name that combined “motion” and “motive” in French. Rather than a solid object of mass and weight, they continually redefine the space around them as they move. In their treatment of gravity, disturbed by gentle movements, they give the feeling that “they carry pleasures peculiar to themselves, which are quite unlike the pleasures of scratching,” to quote Plato in his Philebus. A light breeze, an electric motor, or both in the form of an electric fan, start in motion weights, counter-weights, levers which design in mid-air their unpredictable arabesques and introduce an element of lasting surprise. The symphony is complete when color and sound join in and call on all our senses to follow the unwritten score. Pure joie de vivre. The art of Calder is the sublimation of a tree in the wind.