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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.