Blowing up the truth: Artistic revelations must be understood in social significance

While wandering through the abandoned Urbana cobblestones, my date and I are lost in conversation. We had just watched the film Blow-Up (1966), a conceptual journey in its own right. We asked ourselves, “How can we begin to decipher the meaning of this cinematic masterpiece?”

The artist, Michelangelo Antonioni, was an Italian director notorious for his colorful and abstract visual compositions and enigmatic storytelling. Blow-Up is easily his most famous film, but today it is rarely grouped alongside other transformational artistic achievements. It should be mentioned with the greats — Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” — because it explores the creation of perceptual meaning within one’s own life and how it can be interpreted beyond oneself.

What gives “meaning” to art? Antonioni is distinguishing between individual and social perceptions of how we construct reality and then how they are translated into art form. To help accentuate his point, he includes minor scenes that seemingly do not relate to the plot, playing with the viewer to see whether we can identify which elements “matter,” and which are merely a personal signature.

The central character Thomas is a young, stylish fashion photographer living and working in London. He lives a fast-paced, trendy and sexy lifestyle passing his time with a continuous flow glamorous models that worship him and clumsily stumble over one another to appear in his portfolio.

Thomas is adventurous but bored with these beautiful yet empty objects (as he sees them). He meanders through his life, similar to my moonlit discussion through the Urbana streets: My woman stimulates in me new observations, planting flowers in my heart, watering them with her words and shining warm light through her eyes.

Thomas finds himself strolling through a park (with his camera, of course) and spies on a like-minded couple meeting intimately. He is snapping away despite the woman’s plea for him to return the photos and to leave them in peace.

Back at the studio, Thomas quickly develops the prints and begins to notice something strange. By blowing-up the photos, he digs deeper into the images and believes to see a man hiding behind the bushes with a gun drawn. By distracting the couple, did Thomas prevent a murder?

He is creating a personal interpretation of these mysterious circumstances, though he fails to inspire the same interest his associates because the photos have become too distorted and abstract. Because he cannot produce a larger social significance — definitive proof of a murder — his efforts to expose the crime, and the photographs themselves, have now become meaningless.

He finds himself in the park to discover a group of mimes playing tennis with an imaginary ball. They, as a group, truly believe in the game: There is a social meaning to their activity, a shared relevance that Thomas could not produce.

Antonioni is saying that to create true meaning in art it must be understood socially. That is, the work can be interpreted in relation to other people. Thomas’ personal exploration revealed a sinister plot, but he could not prove it meant anything because he could not create an object that probed into ideas beyond his own personal perspective.

I can wander through my own mind for my own pleasure’s sake and make a “personal” article or clandestine observation. But to create a truly meaningful work of art there must be significance beyond oneself. As artists, and as human beings, we should strive for what is eternal and honest — an undying search for social truth that others may grasp onto and cherish together.

Michael is a senior in LAS.