Secret Revealed: The Meaning of Art

Contemplating the power and vastness

I may be expelled from the artist guild for revealing a closely guarded secret. I want to talk about the meaning of art. Maybe it is not actually a secret. Maybe I just don’t understand.

Objective meaning

Without getting pedantic, we have to talk a little about meaning. This is a deep study in itself that we can only shine a little light on here.

Something has objective meaning if it creates the same idea in your head that it does in mine. A stop sign has meaning for most of us, but only because of training and convention. A user manual describing a feature of a product has meaning – or it should; many are poorly written.

The famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung said:

No individual symbolic image can be said to have a dogmatically fixed generalized meaning.”

I think he was saying that we all see something different when we look at an image.

Pictures consist of marks on a 2D surface, such as canvas. We see the marks as lines, shapes, forms, and colors. How we perceive these marks determine the meaning we get from it. Two people viewing the same image: one dismisses it as uninteresting, the other breaks down in tears because it invoked a deep symbolism or meaning or memory for them.

Some things, like documentary photography or photo journalism, seem to have meaning. They at least motivate a certain response fairly consistently. Even so, the meaning is often not exactly what the creators meant, because everyone is in a different place. So I have to wonder if the work truly has meaning. Another question is whether it is really art. If the focus is meaning, is that at odds with art? Just asking.

Feeling/emotion

I spent most of my career as an engineer. Talking about and dealing with feelings is pretty alien to me. But I have discovered that art is all about feelings. I would go so far as to say that if art doesn’t invoke an emotional response in the viewer, it is probably a failure.

For decades I took technically good, well composed pictures of the natural world. Mostly landscapes. When I look back at them now I see most of them as completely boring. There was little discernible emotion there. I just showed what it was, I did not attempt to give a glimpse of how I felt about it. I was making documentary images, not art. Today, in the same situation, I would strive to bring you my interpretation of the scene, with my feelings prominent. Or if I can’t figure out how to do that, I might take an image for a record of it, but I would never show it to you.

The left brain/right brain model is useful for describing the logical vs. creative sides of our nature. I don’t want to imply that I have or believe we should switch totally to the right brain creativity. Life works best in balance. We have both natures for a reason. I strive to develop my creative side to an equal level with the logical, analytic side I have emphasized most of my life. But at times I also just let my right brain side run free to see what it creates.

Where does meaning come from?

Artists react to and bring out things we may not consciously be aware of. Creativity is a strange and murky process.

John McGlade, an artist and free thinker from Australia, expressed it very well in a Quora answer to a question: Does art have a meaning that only the artist knows? Please pardon the long quote, but this is good stuff.

NO! A piece of visual art may have meaning for the artist who made it or not. If you mean meaning statable in words then artists and the public may have no clue, of an artworks meaning. The visual arts are done precisely because words are insufficient to hold the concepts alluded to in the visual arts like painting, sculpture, photography, plays and film. The artist may say or discover or may have no idea of the meaning in their work just by doing it. (Some artists, contrary to popular belief, may have no idea of why they do their work or what it means, nor do they care!) But the moment other minds see the work, because of their individual and unique thinking and perceptual patterns, they will bring their own impression of what the work may mean to them. As an artist, at every stage of my creativity, I will try to put into some words that hunt around what my work may be about. That’s the exciting thing about doing art, I am groping around in the darkness of my mind and it’s ideas, to discover what my mind is trying to tell me. It’s the same for the public, the artist is highlighting some aspect of their experience, but there’s no guarantee that other people will see it the same way as the artist. Meaning, for our complex human minds, is more than just words, it’s a whole conglomeration of words, images, feelings, impressions, prejudices and perceptual biases into one gigantic scrambled omelette of being; and every omelette is unique. Artists may not be as smart as you or they think they are. They are just highlighting what they have noticed and we are free to take our perception on what they present.

Do I know what it means?

Like Mr. McGlade highlights, in the art I am currently doing I often have no idea when I am working on a piece where I am going with it or what it means. I just follow my feelings at the time and see where it leads. Even when I get done I may not know what it “means”.

After I set it aside for a while and think about it I might be able to figure out why it moves me. Maybe even what it seems to be about. Sometimes I can state a meaning – for me.

I have said before that for art, I am not much of a planner. I react and trust my intuition. So I often do not have a crisp understanding of what I have created.

Why?

But maybe that is not enough. Maybe I owe it to myself and my audience to ask “why”. If I am caught up in a creative mood and making something I really don’t understand, I wouldn’t interrupt the process. But maybe later.

If a gallery requires an artist statement describing a work, I confess that I sometimes have to make up something. Because I honestly may not have words to describe what I meant. Sometimes, though, being forced to write it makes me examine myself and my work . It can be a good exercise to try to express our feelings and intent. Our meaning for a work may emerge over time. It is sometimes hard to force ourselves to go through the introspection required to dig it out.

Questions?

Perhaps one of the purposes of art is to make us ask questions. Could that be the meaning of some art? Maybe we should not look at an image and quickly say “I don’t like it”. A better response may be to ask our self why we feel like we do on viewing it.

Great art, art that stays with us, leaves us feeling like we are on the brink of discovery. That if we keep pushing and examining ourselves we might reveal a great truth. It could be that the unanswered questions are one of the reasons for art. I like William Neill’s quote:

I would rather make an image that asks a question than one that answers one.

Make art

We have enough people going around wringing their hands, promoting their own causes, and painting the world as bleak and depressing and hopeless. I believe art should generally be a positive force in the world. Art to bring us joy, to encourage us to reflect and be mindful, even to aspire to greater things.

That is the direction I will take with my art. You can accuse me of having blinders on, of having my head in the sand. Maybe. But it is easy to point out suffering and ugliness. It is harder to bring joy and encouragement. That is my goal. So I would say my art has meaning, but it may only make sense to me. That is OK. I hope it has some meaning to you, but it will be a different meaning, because you are a different person with different values and experiences. If I can raise some interesting questions I will have achieved something.

I apologize to the galleries that require artist statements full of deep thoughts and meaning behind my images: sometimes I just make something up. There is a meaning to me, but it might not seem significant to state it. It might not even be possible right now. But I will keep thinking. Some emotional or intuitive things can be destroyed by trying to precisely describe them.

I like what E. B. White said about analyzing humor. Paraphrasing it:

Analyzing art is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.

Art is a conduit for feelings and emotions and understanding that cannot actually be expressed in words. So, does art have meaning? It is meaningful. It is powerful. Art moves us in different ways. Art can even change our lives. But it may mean one thing to me and something completely different to you. Perhaps it is better to say art creates meaning.

Labels

Curious reflections in a shop window

We use labels as a short cut to knowing what to think about things. But when we do this without conscious knowledge of what we are doing we blind ourselves to a lot of the world around us. It is probably one of the causes of social, racial, class, sexual biases today. Once we assign a label to someone or something, we cease to see them for what they are. They become what our label stereotypes them as. As artists, we severely limit ourselves if we allow labels to get in the way of actually seeing things.

Shortcut

Labels serve a function. They help us quickly sort through the barrage of information we get every day. They also help make the world around us more predictable. When I recognize something as a phishing email or a spam call I can quickly deal with it without having to analyze it or waste time. I get dozens of emails a day, but I can quickly label most of them as useless or useful and dispose of them.

We use labeling all the time as a prediction tool. I’m about to cross the street and a car is approaching the intersection. It is a fairly late model car and they seem to be obeying the law. I can mostly ignore them. They are not a threat.

Likewise, I’m walking at night and another person is approaching. They look like they share the same labels I apply to myself, so they are probably “safe”. Does this imply some bias? Of course. That is one of the functions of labels.

Self-fulling

We can observe, and psychologists have researched and proven, that labels tend to become self-fulfilling. If a student is told he is smart, his effective IQ usually goes up. In the same way, if a student is told he is deficient, his IQ goes down. And teachers tend to treat them according to the labels.

Labels set boundaries on the thing we are labeling. To us, it is only this. It cannot be more. When we correctly label unimportant things, it helps us be more efficient. I can get through my emails more quickly. I may occasionally mislabel one and miss something I would have wanted to see, but, oh well. Usually I am right. And it is faster.

But labeling people is a dangerous thing. People are much harder to judge and the consequences of labeling them wrong can be high. People deserve to be given a lot more leeway in our “judgments”.

The great old story about the founding of Stanford University after being rebuffed by Harvard is probably not true, but this one probably is:

In July 1998, William Lindsay of Las Vegas said he contacted an unnamed Scottish institution of higher learning by telephone and told them he intended to give some money to a university in Scotland. Taking him for a crank, the person he spoke to rudely dismissed him. His next call to Glasgow University met with a warmer reception, and in March 2000 that school received a check for £1.2 million, enough to endow a professorship in Lindsay’s name.

I’m sure you have your own story about labeling a person and then later finding you were very wrong. Did you feel a little ashamed?

Danger for artists

Setting aside the moral problems with labeling, as artists we are severely limiting ourselves when we trust labels to tell us about the things around us. We are putting blinders on ourselves. Labels prevent us from really looking at things and seeing them for what they are.

As an artist, I need to be open and receptive. I need to be able to see things in fresh, creative ways. I can’t do that if I artificially put the things I am seeing into labeled boxes. Labels are fast and convenient, but I feel they get in my way of creativity. And they take away a lot of potential enjoyment we could get from seeing common things in new ways.

Guy Tal brought out interesting points related to this in his insightful book “More That A Rock“. (I get no compensation for the link; I just point it out to you because it is useful) The title is based on a famous quote by the great photographer Edward Weston:

This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.

Mr. Tal goes on to say in the preface to the book:

In the context of photography, therefore, representation is accomplished primarily through technology and skill, and a fortuitous convergence of “right” place and “right” time. Creativity requires something beyond objective qualities that are inherent in subject, tools, or circumstances – something subjective originating from the unique mind of the photographer that would not have existed had they not created it.

To use Mr. Tal’s terminology, I am constantly trying to get past representation and find creativity. I believe this type of subjective creativity is difficult, if not impossible, if the thing we are considering is hidden behind labels. Unless we learn to overcome the tricks our minds play.

Mindfulness

This brings me around to a subject I keep coming back to more and more – mindfulness.

To be a creative person ,we have to learn to manage our mind and attitude. We have to train ourselves to stay aware and attuned to interesting things around us. One big part of this is to consciously decide to see beyond labels.

I don’t think there are any tricks or cheats. No shortcuts. We just have to be aware of being aware. Training and practice.

Try this sometime. It will be weird at first. Take a block of time to practice mindfulness. Go out walking (or whatever) and keep asking yourself “What is this I am seeing? Have I ever seen anything just like this? How would I make an interesting picture of this?” And do it. Stop and make a picture. Even of silly things: reflections is a window. A chalk drawing on a sidewalk. A flower in someone’s yard. Set your expectations low. You are not doing this to get wonderful pictures. You are training yourself to see and consider more things.

Give it an honest try a few times, then see if you are developing a new ability to see more and deeper. To see beyond labels. If not, write me. I would like to know why it is not working. And , even if it does work, feel free to write me and let me know what you discovered. I would like to share your experience. My email address is in the sidebar.

The image with this article is one of these. I was having lunch near my studio and noticed the way the corner windows were creating abstract reflections. I stopped eating and shot some intriguing juxtaposed scenes. This is one actual image, just found by chance. And because I was looking.

The Decisive Moment

Sunn Tracing reflections on flowing water

Henri Cartier-Bresson was well known for promoting the “decisive moment”. I know from experience that in some situations there is an optimum instant to capture the image you want. But for some it becomes a mantra. Let’s examine some nuances of the concept of a decisive moment.

Sometimes it is not a precise moment

Almost all of my work is shot outdoors. Sometimes I shoot straight landscapes. Often other found objects around me.

I believe I have the experience to say that in these outdoor settings, the “decisive moment” may last from a second to many minutes. Or I may have to wait an hour for the moment to occur. In a slowly changing landscape scene it can be difficult to recognize which moment was decisive – and hope you had the presence of mind to capture it.

In these situations, there may well be a decisive period of time, maybe not an actual moment. It often requires great patience rather than lightning fast reflexes.

A decisive moment

I have shot some sports and kids. These are areas with definite decisive moments.

Sports is easier, in a way. Most sports have a rhythm, a pattern. Once you learn it for a particular sport, you can anticipate the action and predict the best moment. It still may be difficult and you may not be in the best position, but you often will know when it will happen.

I consider kids more challenging than sports. They are unpredictable. Their moods and expressions can change quickly. Framing then, lighting them, and being in position with the right lens and camera settings requires constant attention. Then on top of all of that is the delicate trigger you need to “spring” at the right moment, when the expression or activity is just right. You have to be fully engaged and in the moment.

I make it harder on myself, because I never do formal portraits where I try to control things. I greatly prefer being in the environment where they are comfortable and letting them basically forget about me. Candid shots are what I like.

Now is the decisive moment

This brings up one of the main points I want to make here: now is the decisive moment. Wherever we are and whatever we are doing, we should consider it a decisive moment. We need to be in this moment. Things will never be the same. We will never have exactly this light or these clouds. We won’t feel the same or look at the subject the same.

This used to be a problem for me. I would see something interesting, but I was on my way to do something else “important”, so I didn’t stop. If I even remembered what interested me, it was usually not the same when I came back. The light was wrong. The vegetation had grown up and obscured it. It was raining and foggy. Just not the same. If I wait a couple of months before coming back, it may be a housing addition now!

Well, it may still be a problem, but I recognize it and fight it now. I am much more prone to go ahead and stop and get the shot when I see it. If I am late to something, I don’t mind asking forgiveness. It has not become a problem, except maybe for my wife. She knows now to bring something to read, because I will stop at unpredictable times and places.

Being mindful

This all now brings us to the larger issue of mindfulness. Not the pseudo-spiritual mumbo jumbo we get from the self-help crowd. Real mindfulness involves being in the moment. Being fully aware and conscious.

Modern society does it’s best to train us to not be mindful. We are constantly distracted and entertained. Other people’s ideas bombard us and lead us to pay attention to what they want us to do. But learning to think our own thoughts and to look around and actually see what is there is necessary and healthy.

Do you walk down the street looking around and actually seeing what is there, or are you scrolling Facebook or email to make sure you don’t miss something? Where is your focus?

Do you ever take time for yourself? To think, to consider things, to read? Not to think about work or politics or where you are going with your friends tomorrow night. Is the idea of being alone with yourself scary or exciting?

I suggest you practice being alone in your own head. It might be hard at first. Give yourself some time to just think and to just look around, not expecting something – just looking. Making a quiet place in your head could be a welcome retreat in our noisy, distracting world.

The image with this post is a result of just being mindful. I noticed this scene on a walk along an ugly little canal in town. The location was not “pretty” in itself, but the conditions were right to make an image I love. I am very glad I took the time to notice it.

Do you practice mindfulness? Let me know your experience!

The Making of “Brush Off”

Car wash brush abstract

It was refreshing for me talking about making a piece of art instead of just discussing process or training. I will do it again. This time it is the making of the piece presented here. It is titled “Brush Off”. It is one of those abstract, “what is it?” pieces that I like to do.

Context

If you think this is something very exotic, sorry to disappoint you. As a matter of fact, it is something common and mundane.

This is the brush going over the top of my car in an automatic car wash. Looking up through the sun roof. Like I said, mundane. Sorry.

The point, though, is: even something as common as this can be interesting if you look at it the right way. That is a constant theme of my images.

Technique

It was not as easy as just pointing the camera up and shooting. If I did that, even scrunching down in the seat, the lens would be almost right against the sun roof glass. That doesn’t work.

In order to get the glass in focus and sufficient field of view and depth of field to render the brush the way I wanted I had to get the camera a couple of feet away from the glass. After a couple of wasted sessions of trying to juggle a small tripod in place, I gave up on that and placed the camera on the console looking up. That was the solution. As long as I didn’t bump it.

Unfortunately though, with the camera there I can’t see what is going on. I had to use the Nikon software on my phone to connect to the camera and control it. Again after trial and error I figured out that I had to put it in manual focus and stop transferring captured images to the phone.

Even so, there is a noticeable lag between triggering a capture from the phone and it actually happening. Probably about 1/2 to 3/4 second. This took practice to get in the rhythm. I had to anticipate when things would be in place and try to lead the event correctly. Lots of trial and error. I ended up throwing a lot of frames away.

Finishing

After all that, I wish the image I saw on the computer screen had looked like I visualized. But no. This was a sunny day. There were lots of reflections on the sun roof glass, both from outside and inside. It was worse because I had to abandon my polarizer to get the shutter speed I needed. It was a balancing game to blur the brush just enough to add to the mystery and abstraction without making it just a smear.

I did the initial exposure balance and crop in Lightroom, as usual. Then in Photoshop it required extensive selective color tonal manipulation to eliminate the reflections. Then there was more tonal corrections, dodge/burn, limited sharpening, etc.

Mindfulness

What I want to point out, though, is that the image is not mainly about technique. Behind the “how” is the “why”. I was curious and mindful even while in a car wash. I asked what it would look like looking up through the top during the wash. And I spent the effort to explore it.

I’m glad I did. I like it. This is one of a series of images I did in the same car wash over many washes. It turned out to be a useful place to ask some “what if” questions and see what happened.

I encourage you to follow your curiosity. Don’t be afraid of looking foolish. Don’t worry what anyone else thinks. It is your curiosity and vision.

Lucky, or Good?

Lucky ice on winter lake

You’ve heard the phrase “it’s better to be lucky than good”. Some people will claim this is terrible advice. But I think there is enough truth in the phrase to merit some thought. Strive to be as good as possible, but welcome and embrace luck when it happens.

Not the way to plan

We can’t schedule or control luck. It is an external thing that happens, or it doesn’t. Since we can’t control luck, we better work on the things we can control. This is just pragmatic.

The context here is art, but it really applies to most areas of our life. Work hard. Develop all the skill you are capable of. It is a life-long quest of continual improvement.

When we are good at what we do we have more control of the outcomes. Another old saying you’ve heard is “the race doesn’t always go to the swiftest, but that’s the way to bet.” In this case, bet on skill. Our skill is a huge determinant of what we will achieve,

Art, though, like many important things, is not completely predictable and deterministic. Unexpected or unforeseen things can happen and that can be good.

Luck happens

When the unforeseen happens we tend to call it luck. No matter how great our skill or how much we plan, sometimes something happens that just makes us say “wow.”

If this event takes us away from our desired goal we tend to call it unfortunate – bad luck. If it sparks a new idea or gives a new insight or makes some problems go away we call it good luck.

In either case this event was unplanned, unexpected, unanticipated. That is part of the beauty of it. Or it can be, depending on what we do with it.

Be open and receptive

Luck can be received as a gift. We should be flexible enough to re-evaluate our plans and goals in the moment to consider what we have seen or learned. Psychologically healthy people tend to have an attitude of gratitude. This luck could be pure gold. We should consider ourselves fortunate.

It can trigger the creation of a great image or even bring us to a new place in our art. Even what we at first consider to be bad luck can have good outcomes. There have been times when I had been working on an image or even a project and a piece of bad luck causes me to reevaluate what I am planning on doing. Sometimes I conclude I was going down a dead end. The bad luck sent me to a different and better place.

This cannot happen unless we are open. I could not possibly list all the times some lucky accident caused me to change my plan. Or the number of times I have learned something new to eagerly apply in my work.

This image

Let me talk a little more about this image than I usually do in these articles. I try to get out all year in all weather. In the winter I try be aware of good ice patterns, because I sometimes like the patterns and textures. Usually, here, there is enough snow to make the ice cloudy and less interesting. Nice, but kind of all the same.

This day, though, I hit a brief window where the lakes had partially thawed. Then a hard freeze, with no snow, and calm conditions, had led to the formation of beautiful ice crystals. In addition, the edges of the lakes I was at had good rock just under the surface to give more pattern and color.

I abandoned everything else I was planning to do and nearly froze to death shooting this ice. It was very cold.

I love this image. It has not been altered substantially. Just some color boost and correction. I haven’t seen these conditions before or since. It was a happy accident – good luck.

Lucky or good?

So, is it better to be lucky or good? I will let you answer that for yourself. For me, I believe we need to work very hard on our skill and our vision. We have to be able to produce the work we want to create at the quality level we want. But I also believe we should be receptive to the happy accidents that bring joy and freshness to our life and vision. They seem to go together.

Maybe Samuel Goldwin was right when he said “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”