Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Meaning of Meaning in Art

No word in the English language has been abused more than "mean" and its variants. The problem is that "mean" and "meaning" are multiply ambiguous (see my blog, The Meaning of "Meaning" ) and those using these words very commonly don't say what interpretation they have in mind and that includes linguists and philosophers, who ought to know better. Let me illustrate ths with this example
The meaning of the words uttered provides the input to this inference, but what they mean does not determine what the speaker means (even if he means precisely what his words means (sic), they don't determine that he is speaking literally.
In this case, what the writer means by "what the speaker means" is not made clear. I suspect he means to be saying something like this: "what the speaker intends for the hearer to infer" or "what significance the speaker intends the hearer to attach to what he says." As you can see there is a bit of a problem here.

What concerns me here however is talk about the meaning of this or that painting or the meaning of this or that element of a painting. Take Piccaso's great painting "Guernica," which was painted after a German Luftwaffe bombing of the Basque town of Guernica which killed a large number of people. This occured in 1937. Concerning this painting it is said that
Picasso obstinately refused to explain Guernica's imagery. Guernica has been the subject of more books than any other work in modern art and it is often described as..."the most important work of art of the twentieth century", yet its meanings have to this day eluded some of the most renowned scholars.
Or consider this
Gauguin and Van Gogh used color imaginatively and violently for its expressive emotional value. Immediate impressions and flickering light gave way to heavier subjects, solid with “meaning” in the works of the impressionists' successors.
I am not clear why the quote mark surrounds "meaning" here but it would be appropriate as snigger quotes, also called "scare quotes" or "shudder quotes." I am curious why the writer didn't see the need to put "solid" in snigger quotes for this is a very odd use of the word.

Those who write and talk about art clearly presuppose that works of art have meanings in some useful sense of the term and that these meanings are somehow determinable. I wish in this blog to disabuse them of these beliefs.

In my blog on the meaning of "meaning," I note that "mean" can mean "intend," as in an example like "I didn't mean to hurt you." In sentences like "The meaning of 'liebe' is the same as the meaning of 'love'," we mean that the two words have the same literal or conventional meaning. A third use can be found in examples (1) and (2).

These two uses of "mean" (and its variants) involve the signficance of something -- of saying something or of some real world event, where the event might be a natural event (smoke) or an event having political significance (Ariel Sharon's recent stroke).

In a case like (2), we are talking about what is usually referred to as "natural meaning" and the notion of causation is often involved in explicating how the one thing means the other. Fire normally causes smoke and so smoke can sometimes be taken as meaning that there is a nearby fire. In both cases situational factors are at work. What I mean by this is that in some contexts smoke may imply that there is a fire but in others it might signify something else (a volcanic eruption, for example). The sentence, "Can you reach the salt?," is meant sometimes (intended to be interpreted by the speaker) as a request for salt and sometimes it might be meant as a pure information question. Context plays a critical role in our figuring out whether a request for salt or a request for information is involved. While there is no causal relationship between "Can you reach the salt?" and its being interpreted as a request for salt, there is a no less rationally explicatable relationship between the utterance's literal meaning and the context in which it is uttered and the significance the utterance has (is intended by the speaker to have) in that context. It is the business of semanticians and pragmaticians to figure out this relationship.

What is critical here is that there is a rationally explicatable relationship that can be made quite precise from (a) the literal meaning of the sentence, (b) certain elements of the context in which the sentence is uttered, (c) certain principles involved in interpreting language in context, and (d) the significance (meaning) the speaker intends the listener to attach to his utterance.

When someone says that the meanings of Guernica "have to this day eluded some of the most renowned scholars" it is suggested that such meanings actually exist and that they are findable in principle. This implies that the search for the meaning of a work of art is a lot like the search for the meaning of an utterance or even the true nature of dark matter in physics. We are pretty sure dark matter exists but we can't find any. And some people are sure that Guernica has a meaning or meanings, they just can't find them.

The significance ("meaning") of a painting is very different from the significance of an occurence of smoke or someone's saying, "Can you reach the salt?" The reason is that there is no rationaly explicatable relationship between the elements that comprise a painting and its meaning in the way that there is between seeing smoke and infering that there must be or must have been a fire or hearing "Can you reach the salt?" and infering that the speaker means for you to pass him the salt.

The problem is that the elements that comprise a painting, unlike those that comprise sentences, do not have literal or conventional meanings. That alone is sufficient to discredit any claim that this or that painting has this or that meaning. But there are other problems. In interpreting an utterance, context plays a role and what elements of the context are relevant to the interpretation of an utterance are normally specifiable in a quite precise way. Moreover, how the literal meaning and the elements of context of utterance are used by listeners to interpret the significance (meaning) of the utterance can be specified in a reasonably precise way. The work of John Searle, with a boost from Paul Grice, provides one way of "calculating" the contextual significance (meaning) of certain classes of utterances. In my book, Speech Acts and Conversational Interaction, I provide a very different account that was actually at one time made sufficiently precise for a tiny fragment of English to be actually computed (check out a paper I did with Terry Patten and Barbara Becker, then of The Ohio State University's computer science department).

Back in the day, I got into fierce debates with others about the merits of what was called "New Criticism" in the field of literary analysis. According to this approach, in interpreting a piece of literature, one should not make reference to either the context in which it was created or any information one might have about the writer's intentions. No sillier idea has ever been advanced by responsible, otherwise credible scholars. If we language users acted like new critics, we would never understand each other. But for paintings and literature and music and the rest, even if we had access to the context of composition and the creator's stated intentions, we still couldn't defend claims about the meaning of any painting, poem, or sonata. The problem as I noted is that the elements that comprise works of art and literature do not have conventional meanings. If they did, they wouldn't be art.

When I was a grad student in the Boston area, there used to be an art show held on the Boston Commons by various sorts of graphic artists. One sculpture particularly interested me. It was a figure of a baseball player composed of (if my memory serves me accurately) a lamp stand for the lower body and a metal torso with a diamond shaped hole covered by glass or clear plastic containing a cereal bowl cut in half with a small Wheaties box inside as well as a baseball card). The player was holding an actual wood bat cocked for the next pitch and he had what I took to be a sardonic smile on the face of his metal head. It was one of the funniest sculptures I had ever seen (maybe the only one that was funny). I stood away from this work of art and watched people as they approached it. Very commonly I would see them smile and then see that smile turn into a scowl or look of puzzlement. I took the latter to signify that they couldn't figure out the meaning of the thing and I think some may have disapproved of the idea that a sculpture should be funny. These people may have just had their first ever authentic (in Sartre's sense of the term) aesthetic experience and they promptly dismissed it.

So, when it comes to art, don't ask for its meaning. Simply enjoy it or not. If it makes you think of something, that's even better.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

i just finished reading a book about the riemman hypothesis which is an overview of the work gone into proving one of the most famous problems in mathematics. this problem is considered so difficult that some of the most famous number theorists of the 20th century haven't even bothered with it. those who have, however, were encouraged by the rationale that the work that goes into the impossible often produces something new, kind of like an intellectual overcompensation.

it appears to me that you are doing the same thing here splitting hairs about the use of a certain word which i'm sure would just confuse 90% of the population. i think that was quite a lot of analysis just to say at the end, "So, when it comes to art, don't ask for its meaning. Simply enjoy it or not."

i dont think its unreasonable or inaccurate to say that art has meaning. if i were in a gallery looking at a painting and i asked my friend "what do you think it means?" if my friend replied with something like "well, mark, i dont think the painter really meant anything but was really trying to develop an emotional reaction by the viewer." i would probably "slap" them much like i would "slap" them if i asked if they could reach the salt at dinner and they replied with a poignant "yes" accompanied by a blank stare. (or perhaps i would laugh because i have kind of a dry sense of humour . . .)

7:47 PM

Blogger Copernicus Now said...

On one end of the continuum, there is art in which the meaning--the artist's intention--may be very clear. For example, a moralizing poem, or a love poem from the romantic period. Paintings and sculptures can be similar.

The meaning in such art flows from the artist's intentions.

In the middle of the spectrum, you have oracular art, where the artist provides a rich pallette of suggestive ideas for the audience to interact play in. This is the art of Bob Dylan, of e.e. cummings, the I Ching. There are visual equivalents, too. Anything by Salvador Dali. The album cover to Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

With this type of art, the artist uses language or imagery playfully, pretending that he is imbuing the canvas with meaning. But in doing so, he often manages to trick the audience into providing their own meanings from their own imaginations. It's a kind of larceny, just like the tramp and the nail soup.

The meaning in such art, flows from an often playful interaction that ends in a clever kind of larceny. In the end there is a meaning. The deception is in the illusion that the meaning originated with the artist. The fact that some people don't "get" the meanings, doesn't mean that such a meaning is not generally "gettable".

At the far end of the spectrum, there is a kind of art--some of he finest examples ever--in which the mechanism is not so interactive as in the middle. For example, there is the work of Piet Mondrian, or Pablo Picasso. But the meaning is still oracular. Such art is often like the spilling of sticks on the floor for devination, or a Rosharch (spelling?) ink blot. Still the meaning comes not from the artist, but from the receiver. But that there is a meaning is a definite thing.

All this to say, that art can convey meaning. The origin of that meaning may be an illusion in part, but that illusion is part of the art.

True, some people don't get the meaning. (I don't "get" Mondrian.) But that does not mean there is no meaning in art.

12:56 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Both of you folks neglected to give an argument against my position. You just asserted I was wrong. Paintings do have meaning or significance to those who view them but these meanings do not in any way inhere in the painting itself. However, the significance of the significance (meaning) does inhere in part in the sentence uttered.

It doesn't do to respond to an argument with a counter claim. Cite a painting. Give me its meaning with the same clarity that I gave for "Smoke means fire" or "Can you reach the salt?" would have the significance (meaning) of making a request for salt when at the dinner table.

If you can't do that, then you must conclude with me that the meaning of a painting is indeterminate and that talk about its meaning as if it were somehow a property of the painting is, well, senseless. This position does not denigrate art. It denigrates art criticism, which though not a total waste of time is a fundamentally subjective discipline since its claims are ultimately not objectively verifiable and for the reasons given.

9:03 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I didn't edit what I said and it is a bit of a mess. The last sentence of the first paragraph should read "However, the significance (meaning) does inhere in part in the sentence uttered." Just add "which I claimed" to the beginning of "would have the significance (meaning) of making a request for salt when at the dinner table" in the second paragraph.

9:06 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

As an one who dabs in Abstract art. I always wanted to know what it meant, also.(thats what got me interested in it) I have people say to me, all the time. "What does it mean?" About a painting. Or, they are frusurated & say, "I don't understand this kind of stuff."
I always try to give them something, A mood, a perspective, what I was thinking about as I was painting the picture. give them a lesson in perspective or something. Most people need a lesson in 'aesthetics':

Aesthetic- sense of beauty; aesthetic judgments are immediate, intuitive,undeliberate, & involuntary, therefore they leave NO room for the conscious application of standards, criteria, rules or precpepts.

I tell the confused viewer that their very first & usally fleeting impression was their best & to put the concept of aesthetic in their mind.

Georges Braque says an interesting thing, (not only a great artist & friend of Picasso, he was also very philosophic about art)
He said, "In Art there is only one valid quality: that which is inexplicable."

Here's another quote, by G.Albetr Aurier:
Forms in painting should be seem as 'meaningful' not by virtue of their correspondence to certain things in the world, but by virtue of their place & fuction w/in the individual composition.

Absract art is most properly called non-figuritive as it attempts to dispense w/ the anecdote in order to attain the essence.
As I studied the concept of Abstract art & the history to understand it(to paint it)& enjoy it, to veiw it.

I understand why people stand in front of a painting & want to know the meaning.

But, as you say in your last paragraph, Don't try to find the meaning, enjoy the aesthetics, And if it does make you think of something, great. If you have the fortune to know or visit w/the artist don't ask him what he means(he prob. won't be offended anyway.) Ask him what he was thinking about when he painted it. Ask him about space in Abstract as opposed to space in something by?? You know 'The painter of Lite(OPPS I mean light)guy.

Well L. guy I think I got your meaning on this one.

12:37 PM

Blogger Copernicus Now said...

Maybe we can take this a little bit slower.

I am not on the attack here, and I am not terribly interested in trying to prove that you are wrong. I do have a different interpretation of the matter--which I tried to lay out above. I am interested in trying to understand parts of your conclusion that I don't currently agree with. I do have a position, but I am not attached to it.

For many or most of your statements, I think our views agree. I think for almost any painting that I am interested in, the meaning is not a property of the painting itself. But, I do not conclude that this is necessarily true of all paintings, or all graphic art, at any rate.

Tell me if you think the following would be a fair test of whether it is possible for art to convey meaning. Perform an experiment, similar to an ESP test. (BTW, as a far as I am aware, ESP is bunk.) Have an artist write down a message in an envelope. The message may consist of what he/she is trying to convey. Then have them make a painting or other graphic design that they believe would convey that message. Of course, they should not be allowed to use written language in the design. Show the design to others and see how closely they can describe what the artist's intent was. A variation of this experiment might involve a measure of behaviour on the part of the viewer that can be shown to relate to the artist's original intent. Obviously, there would probably have to be many iterations of the test for it to be useful.

I would be inclined to believe that the artist's meaning was conveyed by the painting if a viewer:
1) could state what the artist's intent was, and that statement was reasonably close to what was written in the envelope, or
2) experienced an emotional reaction that reasonably matched one written in the envelope, or
3) changed their behavior in a way described in the envelope.

If any of those 3 situations proved true, then I would say it is quite reasonable to say that the artist's meaning had been conveyed via the painting, albeit, by non-linguistic means. (I think this would fit the common usage of the word 'meaning'.)

Intuitively, I believe that it is possible to convey a message under terms similar to those described above. I suspect that is exactly what some of my least favorite art attempts to do. It's hard to give an example of a famous painting that does that, because such art is often dull and uninteresting. But a look at the art on many greeting cards would probably be an extreme example.

Anyway, to answer your suggestion that I should cite a painting, I don't see that as helpful. Any attempt to give you a specific example is futile unless we have access to the artist to as what their intent was.

So, in summary, for the most part, I do quite agree with the view that most art does not attempt to convey a specific meaning from the artist to the viewer, I don't agree with universalizing the conclusion to the point of suggesting that it is can not or does not happen.

I would like to take this discussion further, but I have been ignoring my daughter for awhile already.

1:23 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

ME Me!let me do it. PLEASE!!(the experment)
My qualifacations:
1.Learned abstract Art on my owm. No outside influence. (read alot but no formal schooling)
2.Am naive; (blank slate).
3. Have rudimentry talent. have worked in many mediums. Would choose classic oil painting for this project.
4. have materials at hand. can start immediantly. have digatal camera can send reports of progress.
5. have been itch'n to do painting. as of yet, no subject in mind.
6. Artist can not be friend of either. Language guy dispises me & I don't know you.

2:00 PM

Blogger Copernicus Now said...

Wow, your enthusiasm is amazing!!

Even though it may have sounded simple in outline, I suspect performing such a test with any degree of rigor would entail a considerable effort. First, the whole thing would have to go through many iterations, involving different artists and different viewers. Then there would be the matter of ensuring a fair scoring system.

After I suggested the test, it struck me that somebody has probably already done a comparable experiment. So, if you are interested, you might want to research previous work before trying to do this yourself.

Personally, I think the experiment itself would be a kind of sideshow to the real issue. I am actually more interested in L_G's take on whether it would be a fair test of whether the artist's meaning is truly conveyed through the medium of a painting or not. If he doesn't agree, I think his reasons for disagreeing might be more enlightening to me than the outcome of an actual test.

6:52 PM

Blogger Copernicus Now said...

By the way, when I told my wife about my clever idea for an experiment, she said looked at me like I'm a moron and said, "Hello! Pictionary!".


6:58 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

"The deception is in the illusion that the meaning originated with the artist."

Copernicus hit the nail with the head there. I think it was Corey Taylor of Slipknot fame (or was it David Draiman of Disturbed?) who mentioned that he made the lyrics intentionally vague so that people could attach their own meaning to it, even though it had a particular meaning for himself. So it does have meaning to him, and it can have meaning for others. The same is true of art. I think perhaps where you are lawyerly splitting hairs is that you are looking at the word "meaning" and asking for it to be much more specific than it needs to be. If the artist gave away his own meaning for the work then it would lose much of its allure and people would be much less interested in it. Who would sit around and discuss the work if the artist had already foreclosed discussion?

As a comparison, take the sentence "What's going on?" and the painting "Guernica" (while impressive in size and very ambitious, I've never cared for Picasso). There are meanings inherent in them both--the shapes of the painting evoke chaos and moo-cows, among other things, and the color blue has its own meaning just as any word can have meaning. The sentence "What's going on?" similarly has some degree of abstract meaning. In either case you need to know the context to find the meaning. The painter's identity and what was happening to him at the time are extremely relevant to determining context. If a 4-year-old had painted Guernica simply because he had a huge canvas and he liked moo-cows then it means something extremely different from Picasso's situation. The sentence is the same: if I say it to somebody in the hallway it's nothing more than an idle greeting. On the other hand, if a husband walks in on his wife with another man, then it means something entirely different. So, I would assert, "Guernica" and "What's going on?" equally have inherent meaning, and their meaning to different people depends on the context.

Alternatively, there are paintings that definitely have some kind of meaning. For example, Dali's "The Metamorphosis of Narcissus" has meaning in that it evokes the mythology of Narcissus. There is much more symbolism there than simply that, but it tells a familiar story and therefore has at least that degree of inherent meaning (at least if you are familiar with context). Even absent any context, many classical paintings have inherent meaning, like one I particularly like of a man getting his head cut off, which has at least the inherent meaning of "This guy is getting his head cut off," whether you know it's John the Baptist or not.

Personally, though, I don't ever intend any particular meaning to my photography. I'm more of the "street photography" school of thought, which is based on the idea that the photograph has no meaning, it is simply light/shadow/color, and the aesthetics are of utmost importance.

By the way, for those of you who haven't figured it out, I'm back and posting on my blog, in case you stopped going because I was gone.

12:39 AM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

I should temper my remarks by saying that art can only have meaning "inherently" as much as words can. Of course sounds or symbols don't inherently have any meaning without the context of the language itself, just as different colors and shapes don't inherently have any meaning unless you recognize the shapes or colors as depicting something or evoking some feeling.

12:43 AM

Blogger A Shave and a Haircut said...

This talk of context is important but too limited. Art communicates through experience and relationship, which makes it more like an event than like any word or sentence.

What does that birthday party mean? What did that phone call mean? What did his funeral mean? What did our last argument mean? What does our marriage mean? There's no singular answer, but they were all full of meanings--or would have been to some degree if you had participated--and would have been even moreso if you had been drawn in by necessity or choice and given yourself over even more to the experience--and still more if you reflected thoughtfully on the event and your participation.

The meanings of "a party" or "a phone call" or "a funeral" or "an argument" or "a marriage" -- or "this piece of art in front of you" -- depend on the contents of the thing itself and on your participation/relationship with the thing in all its fullness. These meanings of events can't be tidily summed up in propositions, exclamations, or even questions. If they could, then no one would throw parties, attend wakes, or create art of any kind.

The recognitions of meaning happen in the experience, so "...enjoy it or not..." strikes me as a thoroughly disengaged response, LG, maybe even cynical. If you are interested in how meanings are communicated in art, then "experience it, reflect on it, investigate it--and if you enjoy it, so much the better."

5:04 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

L>T, you understand my meaning perfectly. This is the single best response any of my blogs has every gotten.

Too many people simply don't have any clear idea as to how to deal with issues precisely.

Copernicus Now, you are all over the place. To say that something has meaning unless you add "to me" thereby making it subjective is irrational for you are attributing to a thing (painting) a property of the observer of the thing (viewer). A party has meaning to each of its participants and it will probably be different for each of them. Ergo, the party does not HAVE (=possess) meaning per se. Paintings don't HAVE (=possess) meaning per se either.

8:45 AM

Blogger Copernicus Now said...

"...To say that something has meaning unless you add "to me" thereby making it subjective..."

Not sure what you are trying to say, L_G. I am not sure you are representing anything I said.

On the other hand, you seem to be disregarding the experiment I proposed. If the notion behind my experiment is invalid, then I would be likely to admit that paintings can not possibly convey meaning in an objective sense.

9:45 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Language Guy, thanks for the complement.

Now, I do take back every thing I said about you. :)

Copernicus, haven't played pictonary in a while, but,
I used to kick butt.

11:38 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have experienced that my computer will not do what I want it to do; it does what I tell it to do. Ever experience that?

My goal is to always say what I mean but my command of the English language is not as comprehensive as I would like it to be. I continue to make every effort to improve on my abilities to speak and write what I mean to say.

A work of art is the physical representation of the artist’s own thoughts or feelings. When the critic is observing this representation it is entirely up to the critic to what it is they perceive.

My favorite interpretation of modern art was observed by a person I have quite a bit of respect for, R. Lee Ermey, a Marine. In the movie Full Metal Jacket, R.Lee played a Marine drill sergeant (Gunny Hartman). In one scene he told one of his charges that “he was so ugly he could be a modern art masterpiece”. I prefer the era of Impressionism but like music, everyone has their own tastes.

I used to read the Philadelphia Inquirer, a daily newspaper. I stopped reading that abhorrent mess because the articles were so poorly written that it would take at least two times to read any given article to understand what the writer was trying to convey. This observation has also been expressed to me by some of my colleagues that have a higher degree of education than me. The other Philadelphia newspaper called the Daily News is written and edited to accommodate their readers having a fourth grade reading level. The editors of the newspaper have readily admitted to this.

My point is that if you want to have people understand what you mean, you must be able to communicate on a level you both are capable of understanding.

10:43 AM

Blogger Le vent fripon said...

I like to think of painting as the art of representing three dimensional space on a two dimensional space (the canvas). The meaning of the painting could be understood as the created representation. If there are a bunch of brushstrokes, splatters, etc... on a two dimensional canvas, and yet everyone sees an apple, we could say that the meaning of the painting is the apple. I realize that this metaphor is cliché and cannot be taken very deep, but I think it is useful for comparing something foreign (painting) to something we engage in all the time (language).

On the other hand written works of art certainly "have" meaning, because they are composed of language! Perhaps the work as a whole doesn't have conventional meaning, but the individual words certainly do. It is absurd to claim that a novel or a poem is not built of language.

7:10 AM

Blogger Donna Quixote said...

In re the meaning of visual art: On the day that writers are required to accompany their work with their own painting or sculpture to "show" what their work "means" (before it can even be allowed to have meaning) I will acknowledge the validity of asking a painter or sculptor to "tell" what their work "means". What does blue mean, what does round mean? Color, shape, texture existed before words. We experience them, we understand them...without words. That experience cannot be conveyed by words, not completely. Pigment and brush, marble and chisel, hands and clay existed before writing, probably even before words. Is it written that God described man into being? No, He began with a handful of clay.

9:41 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

The point is that art has significance but not conventional meaning. The problem is that both are covered by the term "meaning" and one needs to be clear which sense of the term "meaning" one has in mind. It is silly to ask anyone what the conventional meaning of a work of art is. It is not silly to ask what the significance is to them.

3:31 PM


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