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.