Art doesn’t mean anything. Or does it?
This is a message to all artists everywhere. Who cares what you think? It really doesn’t matter in the least what your work is about or what you think it’s about or if it’s about anything really.
Meaning. Sure, it matters to you. That’s important. It’s really important that your art contains meaning and that that meaning–no matter how personal or universal–contains messages you have hidden or left in plain sight.
Are these contradictory statements? Perhaps at the surface. But in reality they aren’t contradictory in the least. In reality these statements are true simultaneously, and the fact of meaning in any work of art is inherent in the art itself.
Let’s take a look at the sources that academics look to when they interpret a work of art:
- The life and times of the artist
- What the artist says about the work of art
- The life and times of the viewer
These three sources are commonly used to interpret art and to derive a work’s meaning. Often an artist (even a contemporary artist) is a dubious resource when it comes to the meaning of their work. Artists can be mysterious, withhold information, or in some cases paint, draw, or sculpt subjects from subconscious places in their psyche that escape their own ideas about meaning.
When an artist sets to work and creates an image that contains imagination and emotion, it serves to reason that the possibilities for unconscious meaning are increased. So in this way, an artist is somewhat of a conduit of messages. A sort of cosmic copilot. A shadow of illumination.
Their life experiences, the economic and political and social climate that an artist lives in are partly in control of the meaning of any work of art. There is no denying this. Look at a work of art from each century from the first to the 21st. Each generation, each religion, each government, each culture, each gender all play a role in defining the voice of the artist.
The life and experience of the viewer is an undeniable factor in the reading of a particular piece of art. For instance, it’s absurd to suggest that a literary critic from the 1950’s and an 18-year-old gamer might have the same experience of looking at a Jackson Pollock canvas. The art is there, on the museum wall, sitting there like a flower or a train wreck, free for any person to look at, see shapes and color and volume and mass.
What Pollock said about the physicality of paint was important to art. But what have the effects of time had on that particular revolutionary action for subsequent generations of viewers?
The meaning each viewer takes from the work is malleable, ever changing, and frankly has less to do with the intended meaning and much more to do with the willingness of the viewer to search for or meditate on meaning.
So who owns the meaning? The artist? The universe? The reader?
All three do. The artist gets to look at their work for the first time. Like a mother falling in love with a newborn child they get to say “you are here,” and they do get to gaze in wonder at the fruits of the creative act. After that, their act of creation is done. From that moment the meaning of the work itself is no longer theirs entirely. From that moment the work is on a linear trajectory in time and and space toward the next viewer. That viewer will see the work and is free to get the meaning they need from it. It’s a good thing that the viewer isn’t limited to the intended meaning.
In art critiques with my students, I encourage them to avoid saying, “this work is about…” and I ask them to say, “what this work means to me is…” or “I think this means…” or “I intended this to mean…” In this way, the student-artist is well served by considering the viewers’ possible perspectives. It’s an act of respect for the viewer. The viewer, after all,
is in charge of making the work mean something to them. And that is indeed an essential element of the dance we call meaning in art.
Images: “Convergence” Jackson Pollock 1952
Jackson pollock painting in action