Umberto Eco – Opera Aperta (The Open Work)

Posted on October 20, 2014


I have been much influenced in my thinking about ‘Lifting the Curtain’ by Umberto Eco’s ideas of ‘openness’ in works of art as  set out in his seminal work Opera Aperta  (The Open Work). Eco’s work was first published in 1962. My analysis is based on a 1989 English translation  published by Harvard University Press (1) In this post my comments are related largely to his essay ‘The Poetics of the Open Work”. (2)

Eco begins by defining what he means by ‘openness’. He refers to the conventional application of the term, in which an author (artist) ‘arrange[s] a sequence of communicative efforts in such a way that each individual addressee can refashion the original composition as devised by the author‘ (my underlining) (3). In Eco’s terms ‘openness’  is about works in which are open in a ‘far more tangible sense’ (4). Such works are ‘quite literally unfinished’ (5) and require the active participation of the audience to derive their meaning.

Eco gives several examples of musical works which fit with his view of ‘openness’, such as Stockhausen’s Klavierstucke, Boulez’s Third Sonata for Piano. (6) In these pieces the composers allow the performer to select from a series of note groupings or to choose the sequence in which sections of music are played.

Published in 1962 Eco’s ideas on ‘openness’ anticipate major themes in critical thinking which gained precedence from the mid-sixties onwards — the ideas of plurality/polysemy in art and the death of the author (or conversely the rise of the reader). The conventional view prevailed in his native Italy at the time was that of Croce, who viewed art as a mental phenomenon in which ideas are communicated from the mind of the artist to the spectator without change — Eco was radically opposed to this.

Eco was greatly influenced by his interaction with avant-garde artists and by his study of James Joyce. He considered that traditional art forms lead to representation of a conventional view of the world. He sees the ‘open work’ as an appropriate response to the modern world. Traditional art reflected the ‘conception of the cosmos as a hierarchy of fixed, pre-ordained orders’. (7) ‘Openness’ on the other hand offers an experience much more analogous with our experience of the modern world  in which life is less ordered and there is great skepticism of metanarratives. Once again Eco appears to be anticipating later philosophical thought — in this case Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition. 

Eco perceives an ‘open work’ as essentially ambiguous, offering a range of potential meanings. However, he also says that a successful ‘open work’ must produce ‘controlled disorder’ (8), in which the author offers  ‘the interpreter, the performer, the addressee a work to be completed’ (9) but which ‘remains the world intended by the author’ (10). Eco gives the example of Brecht’s plays, which he views as open works. He suggests that they appear to ‘elicit free and arbitrary response’ from the audience. (11), but are constructed so that any response is directed towards Brecht’s Marxist view of the world.

Eco also points out that  we should not imagine that ‘the tendency towards openness operates only at the level of indefinite suggestion and stimulation of an emotional response’.  This statement prefaces his comments on Brecht’s Epic Theatre. To quote Eco, Brecht’s plays ‘offer a series of facts to be observed’, but do not ‘devise solutions’. The solution is seen to come from the ‘collective enterprise of the audience’. (12)

Eco’s idea of ‘openness’ is an important underpinning in my strategy for ‘Lifting the Curtain’. I see the images and texts as ‘facts to be observed’  (as per Eco’s view of Brecht’s Epic Theatre) requiring the active participation of the viewer/reader to determine meaning. My strategy directs the viewer/reader to consider particular issues in both past and modern contexts, but does not tell him/her what conclusions to reach. The text and image operate in relay (per Barthes see my previous post here) where image and text operate in a complementary arrangement and meaning is realised at a higher level in the form of a narrative or story. By presenting the work as a series the viewer/reader is also encouraged to draw further conclusions about the meaning of the work through contextual associations across the series (per Barthes ‘Context’).

1) Eco U. (1989) The Open Work Cambridge: Harvard University Press

2) Ibid. p. 1

3) Ibid. p. 3

4) Ibid p. 4

5) Ibid p. 4

6) Ibid p. 1-2

7) Ibid. p. 13

8) Ibid. p. xii

9) Ibid p. 19

10) Ibid p. 19

11) Ibid p. 20

12) Ibid. p. 11