I’m sure you’re familiar with Plato (the philosopher, not the stuff you ate when you were three). He has this theory that, I think, fits very well into what we’re doing here in life, trying to understand one another and in artistic expression.
Plato wrote within semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, of the ‘referent,’ ‘signified,’ and ‘signifier.’ These are simple notions to help us with understanding the real world.
He has this notion of the ‘perfect chair’ – the chair that you think of when I tell you to think of a chair.
For instance – when I say chair, you think:
Chairs, as our brain (and Google images) will immediately tell us, are typically wooden, four legged objects with a flat spot to sit on, and an upright back. This, generally speaking, is as close to the idea of ‘chair’ as is humanly possible – for no image is as perfect as the imagined image of ‘chair.’ In this example the actual picture of the chair is the signifier; the signifier is the image of the chair whether on paper or perceived by our retinas. The referent is this actual chair, in real life, because this is what the signifier (or image) literally refers to. Lastly, the idea of ‘chair’ is the signified because, at the end of the day, the photo, the actual chair, and all the hard work that’s gone into producing both is, you guessed it, the signified notion.
I have a theory — it’s somewhat undeveloped and even a little crude to some, I’m sure, but I have a general theory that’s roughly based on Plato’s philosophical beliefs, and it’s the fundamental force behind my creativity and creative expression. My relation to Plato’s theory can be surmised, simply, in one word:
Each time I sit to write this notion is in my head. Each time I’ve taken a picture, filmed a scene, and even spoke with another person, this idea is at the most forefront of my thoughts. What is the signified truth of the situation, the moment, the scene, or the action? Every single moment and thing and action and inaction can be reduced to the purest motivation. It’s all very basic, and yet incredibly intricate.
Everyone has taken a picture before; we all know how to point the camera, click the button, and capture the image – but what separates the casual photographer from the professional?
Each time a professional artist acts to portray something (either on film, video, paper etc.) he or she is really trying to capture the true essence of the circumstance, the perfect incarnation of the referent – this is what makes the artwork relatable, universal.
A truly good picture is one that will present it’s subject(s) in a way in which we can all relate; it will show its subjects in a universal light, in a type of mental language that speaks directly to the human experience. It’s this universality that is embedded in all of our unconscious minds, and that creates relativity.
Thus, a good written scene is also one that’s relatable. The perfect truth of a situation lies in capturing the essence of character and the subtle nuance of human interaction and timing; it’s about making things real and identifiable, even for someone who has not been in an identical situation.
Relatability, on the other hand, does not hinge, for example, on the audience’s intimate knowledge of a specific situation but, more broadly, on the feelings and prescribed notions that come part and parcel with said situation. As a basic example, film audiences witnessing a bank heist and narrow escape from the police are compelled to feel the fear of being caught and the thrill of a narrow escape. If we as the audience are unconsciously compelled to feel any significant part of the film’s portrayal, then the artwork has succeeded in becoming more true and in turn accurately (or as close to accurately as possible) represents the signified notion.
It’s funny how this works, really, and how attuned to it I’ve become. It’s a familiar feeling for me, when watching a movie or seeing pictures or written work that strikes me as true. I’ll smile, sometimes laugh or simply shake my head, amazed by the perfect composure of the work, and an intense relation strikes me like a tack hammer. I haven’t lived the situation, sometimes, but it’s exactly its essence, and it’s tangible; it’s perfect.
I think, also, it’s important to stress the universality of this principle. I could walk into my kitchen and take a picture of a placemat, and sure, it would be a picture of a placemat, but there exists, perhaps only mentally, the most perfect image of a placemat that could possibly exist, and when each of us look upon it we realize that this is exactly it. This, and nothing else, is a placemat. For every single meal from here until the day I die, this is the laminated piece of plastic that I want to eat off of.
And this, finally, is the struggle that we all face. Life is the pursuit, not only of happiness and fulfilling our desires, but the pursuit of the ‘signifieds;’ whether they exist or not, we will perpetually chase them down, if only for a brief glimpse.
It’s writing, however, that gives me the opportunity to attempt to create signifieds, truths. Each time I put the pencil to the page (or cursor to the blogosphere, as it were) I am striving for something unique, interesting, and captivating, but that is also entirely able to be realized and felt by any audience that comes into contact with it. I’m striving for relatability, for significance, and for the ‘Truth,’ and who knows if I’ll ever find it.
If it were up to Clint Eastwood, I might not be able to “handle it;” but since it’s up to Play-Dough… well, I just might have a shot.