Does art have “meaning”? Especially a deep meaning that leads to truth or changes the life of the viewer. This is a thorny subject that has been debated for centuries. I’m not going to settle the question. (Sorry) But I can give my POV.
The Elitist view
Some say that all art does, or should, have meaning. It should educate or enlighten. It should lead the viewer to a new state of understanding. To some all art should support a cause or attempt to change the world. One of the unfortunate extremes of this is the frustrated attitude that if you don’t “get it” you are not in the privileged elite. You are too lowly, unworthy to understand.
This very high minded view is often presented by galleries and some artists in their artist statements. I can understand it, really. They are selling a product. The more elite and special it seems to be, the higher price it can command. The more collectable it is. I’m guilty of it at some level.
And it probably is more typical of art that takes a long time to produce. If you worked for weeks or months on a painting or sculpture you naturally want to believe it has some reason to be worth a lot. Otherwise, why did you waste your time? It is natural.
But I don’t want to discuss those more classical media. My art is based on photography.
Does my photography have intrinsic meaning?
Does a photograph, one of my photographs, have meaning or represent some great truth?
Sorry, that’s the best I can do, because I believe it is the right answer. Meaning, if any, is a communication process between the artist and the viewer.
Take the image with this post. Does it have meaning to you? I could write a whole post on the symbols and relations I see in this. That does not mean you will or should.
When I produce an image, it is an instant of the world seen through my eyes. But is it also interpreted through your eyes. I may believe it has significance, but I may not communicate it effectively to you. Or I may capture something I think is interesting, but to you it represents an insight or truth I did not consciously see.
That represents part of the problem. There are multiple parties involved. There is me, the author, on one side. I produce it. It is interpreted through my viewpoint, through my beliefs and vision and talent. I had a reason for creating the final image. On the other hand, each person viewing it sees something different. Some may see deep meaning. Some may only see a pleasing image. Others may be completely bored with it. Even if I believe there is meaning there I may fail to effectively convey it to you.
My thought is to say it is my failing if I do not succeed in conveying the meaning, but that is too simple. We each have our own values and history and viewpoints. You may not be receptive to what I have to say. If that is the case it is not so much that I have failed, but that we just can’t get together on our viewpoints. Maybe that’s kind of like the current political mess we have.
Do I have to bring meaning?
Ah, but there is a subtle assumption in this argument. It assumes I really was trying to teach you something deep. Here’s a secret: I don’t usually. It is often sufficient that an image is pleasing to me.
Life is multi-faceted. There are many layers and levels. Not everything has to be deeply significant and serious. Lighten up. Let some things exist just for pleasure. I am very happy with an image that I believe conveys beauty or joy or simply brings something interesting to your attention.
It is a consistent theme with me, but I believe our high pressure, hurried lives are causing many of us a great deal of stress and actually reducing our pleasure in life. I want to produce art for your wall that will give you a moment of pleasure when you notice it. Hopefully you will slow down a minute, contemplate it, use it as a reminder to look around more for what is going by all the time. That’s enough meaning for me.
So, meaning? It’s overrated. I hope my art beings you to a new place, but art should bring joy, not be a school exercise. I promise I will not score you down for not seeing all I believe there is in one of my images. Analyzing the meaning of my work doesn’t being me joy, I just want to create!
But that’s just where I am. What are your thoughts?