|WHAT DOES IT MEAN? A SURVEY
Man’s search for meaning.
It’s never-ending isn’t it? I mean, doesn’t the search for meaning mean that we’ll be searching forever because, after all is said and done, we’ll never really figure out the meaning of everything so while I don’t mean to confuse you, what’s the point in seeking the meaning of one thing if we can’t figure out the meaning of everything? Isn’t it all connected?
Phew ... Am I making sense?
We’re constantly searching. We’re always on the hunt. I think our search for meaning is really steeped in our desire to understand, yet ultimately control life. We hunt and search to understand, but when you come right down to it, we want more than mere understanding. We want everything “under” our “stand.” In other words, we want everything under foot … or under our comprehension and therefore, “under our control.”
But that’s simply not to be, is it? Mystery is the spice of life.
This is especially the case with things that challenge or frighten us. Contemporary art fits the bill. Does it not? Art is as spicy as a bowl of jambalaya.
Seconds after that first taste, we always ask … “What’s in this?”
I’m convinced that one of the main reasons why contemporary art doesn’t have a much larger fan base like the NFL is because it’s often very challenging. Art doesn’t offer easy answers. In fact, most of the time, it’s asking YOU questions.
Consequently, the last thing anyone needs or wants after a long, hard, workweek is yet another question. ENOUGH with the questions!
But I digress. Have you noticed that I often digress before I even get started? OR … am I truly digressing? Hmm.
I got the idea to write this during an interview with artist Judy Horowitz. Judy said she hates it when people look at her work and ask that eternal question …
“What does it mean?”
It’s like a dog chasing his tail, isn’t it? Fido can either snap out of it or keep chasing until he knocks himself out cold after slamming into the nearby coffee table. It’s fun yet futile.
Right after … “How long did it take you to do that?”… “What does it mean?” is surely one of the most common questions that people ask artists. And so, thanks to Judy (and Fido, the tail-chasing dog), I decided to try to expand the dialogue around this question. I got many fantastic responses, most of which I’m presenting here with minimal editing.
Let’s actually start with Judy. Again, imagine you’re an artist showing your work at an art fair and someone walks up, looks at one of your works and asks …
“What does it mean?” How do you respond to that question? Do you like this question?
Judy says: “I hate when people ask, ‘What does it mean?’ OR ‘What is the painting trying to say?’ People project when they look at art, so I prefer to let them make their own decision as to ‘what it means ...’” – Judy Horowitz
However, Cecile Brunswick disagrees: “I don’t get it very often, but when I do, I tend to think the person who is asking doesn’t know anything about art and has no exposure to it and when answering one needs to start from scratch. I take a deep breath and start to explain what prompted me to paint the piece, point out the elements involved: that is the colors, shapes and why they work.
I may also ask how the person feels about the piece or what he/she thinks it’s about. This results in some interesting answers! In the end, we’ve had a good conversation leaving the viewer with a better feeling regarding art in general.” – Cecile Brunswick
Patton Hunter adds a very interesting comment: “I like the question. It means the person is interested or even intrigued by the work and wants to know more about it. And it gives me a chance to explain that the painting is intended to open a narrative with the viewer and make them think about what it means to them.
My work comes from my own life experiences, so it will mean something different to others, but I think there is a common thread of meaning that will evoke wonderful comments and opinions. Every opinion layers on more meaning and emotional energy. I wish my paintings could report back to me about how they have grown in meaning and impact with input from many viewers! – Patton Hunter
John McLaughlin says: “I don’t even know what my work means. So I expect people to ask what it means. – John McLaughlin
Dr. Susanne Schwarz – also a painter - says: “Yes, I don't cherish this question either because of the same opinion. People are supposed to question themselves about the artwork. I feel I get used to it and explain why I don't answer. I really do not give an answer. This may be impolite, but it’s authentic.” – Dr. Susanne Schwartz
Want more? Okay, here we go …
“I disagree with the artist (Judy). Visual art is a way of communicating in visual terms. It’s sometimes very clear like Picasso's Guernica, about the horrors of war and other times, it’s not. If the artist and the curator/gallerist fail in assisting in bringing the message, then, the work is lost. I think once a work is being exhibited, members of the public should feel free to ask those questions. I like it very much.” – Lorenzo Belenguer
“… If someone asks me, “What does this mean?” I politely encourage them to spend a little more time with the painting. If they still have questions after that, I’ll try to be accommodating and sensitive to what I perceive to be their level of experience. They may ask such a question because they lack experience when it comes to viewing art or they’re curious to know if their impressions are similar to mine or they just want to know more about what inspired the work.” – Sheldon Krevit
“I prefer that you do not ask me that question because it would mean that I did not know how to convey my message through my work, but if that question is answered I responded through my vision.” – Raquel Sarangello
“If it weren't for some of the elitist artwork of the last 100 years, people wouldn't think they had to ask. The majority of people are too apprehensive to ask what a work is about for fear of sounding unintelligent. We can thank critics like Clement Greenburg for putting it in people's minds that if something is beautiful, it must be kitsch and the people who enjoy that beauty are stupid. Frankly, I'm glad to make connections with people viewing my artwork. I like to keep my paintings open and accessible for anyone to bring their own perspectives to them. After all, isn't that our job as artists - to make connections with all of humanity? I say ask away.” – Eric Armusik
“I personally don't mind. People just don't have the tools to read an art work just like an artist doesn't have the knowledge to perform surgery. When somebody asks me that question I usually just answer, “Well it means whatever you want it to mean - like any music - just let it flow.” – Jorge Usan
“I've been reading through the Old Testament lately and I've been struck by how often the Israelites will pile up stones to mark significant events. Take Joshua 4:5-6, for example, ‘Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord.’”
In light of this, I've been considering the work of an artist to be like the act of setting up stones and perhaps an art gallery is a room full of rocks, quietly marking meaning. When I enter an art gallery and like the children of Israel ask, ‘What do these stones mean?’ I would certainly be disappointed to hear the answer, ‘They mean whatever you think they mean, dear.’” – Stephen Watson
“I don't really get this question too often, but if I'm asked “What does it mean?” I respond with: "What does it mean to you?” I'll follow up with: "You are the observer, so I'd like to hear what you feel, think and experience when you are in front of my art, without my opinion.”
I express to each person that once my art gets completed, I’ve learned more about it from viewer's comments. This is very true for me!” – Elisa Pritzker
“I am quite agreed that art should speak for itself. One should feel, understand or think about any art piece on their own, but it also goes the other way too as how to start to understand, feel and think about an art work without help.
They can get help from general knowledge guide books that have general explanations; a painting showing a figurative picture would be easier understood than maybe an abstract work or an installation. For installations, you often have an explanation of the work because often it’s not obvious, not comprehensive.
As an artist, I believe I should be open to any comments from a viewer. The comment could be bad or good – that’s not important. What holds some importance is the viewer’s reaction to the work by asking for an explanation or by passing a comment about it. That is in itself an achievement to my eyes.” – Francesco Ruspoli
“I often get such a question, but it is usually even more amusing: ‘Is this supposed to have a meaning of some kind?’ as if I'm up to something, hiding my intent in the color and form of the painting. To like or dislike such a question is a waste of emotional energy; it's a natural outgrowth of animal curiosity. My usual answer is simply: ‘That's up to you,’ and a smile, which usually satisfies the curious questioner.” – Paul Scott Malone
“I take it as a compliment that someone is interested and curious enough to ask me about my abstract paintings.
I believe that the viewer wants to understand why an artist paints what he or she does and what the artist’s motivation is. Whether it is to convey a message, an emotion or capture a moment in time, etc. So yes, I like this question because it is a great way to start a conversation about color and form and why – abstract?
To me, this question shows a willingness and a desire to learn more about the art that one is viewing. I believe that the viewer wants to feel the same thing that the artist felt when he/she painted it. They want to get inside the artist’s head and feel the emotion that the artist felt. In the end, I hope that they want to appreciate the art.” – Su Horty
“I understand why they ask, but does art always have to mean something? Are they really asking, ‘What can tell me about your work that I don't see or I'm missing?’ That's a reasonable question that deserves an answer or perhaps the start of a dialogue.” – Rick Silberberg
“I don't love this question either. While I have lots of my own thoughts about any given piece of art that I've made, I don't like to claim sole ownership of its ultimate meaning. Part of the joy of looking at art is in learning its language and listening to what it (the art object) says to you. When an artist “explains what it means,” it can short-circuit that exciting process and the experience becomes more like using a decoder ring to figure out the message in your cereal box. Of course words are important and artists should be able to talk about their work, but not at the expense of the journey of the viewer. Great art gets lots of exciting and surprising meaning started rather than simply declaring a single message.” – Steve Morrison
Before I go on dear reader, didn’t Steve Morrison make a very interesting point? When you tell people what something means – assuming it even has meaning - could it not be possible that you’re robbing that person of their own personal experience with the art in question?
Wasn’t it enough that you created the piece? Now … you also have to explain it? I often feel that way with my writing.
Anyway, more food for thought. Let’s continue on …
“What does it mean?” is a question that indicates a person is seeing something beyond an object's beauty or visual impact and searching a little more deeply. Nothing wrong with that.
But when someone asks “What does it mean?” it’s also possible that the work is lacking content or that any meaning is obscured - sometimes deliberately sometimes not. The viewer wants to discern something more, but is stuck.
For example, some artists who tend to be very didactic in their content may be offended by this question. After all, they are attempting to forcefully articulate a strongly held belief or perhaps a political opinion. The question itself indicates some degree of failure on their part. Other artists tend to create overly complex messaging in their work - trying to say too much - and may also find the question indicative of the shortcomings in their work.
The challenge for me is to create powerful minimalist pieces that are both beautiful to behold, filled with content, yet are non-didactic. I want to bring the viewer to a place of contemplation or searching for something in their mind which seems to connect to my work. I don't really care what it means to me, but I am always pleased if they find in it something that connects with them.
So, when someone asks me, ‘What does it mean?’ I tell them the truth: ‘It is meant for you.’ That usually puts them on firmer ground.” – David Beers
“I don't mind this question because it's a perfect opportunity to begin a conversation about the work or something within the work. I usually turn the question back and ask what they think it means, and why they think that. We go from there. Conversationally, rich things can be made visible through discussion. It's the core of all languages, especially the visual language.” – Karen Fitzgerald
“It’s better than, ‘How long did it take you to do that?’ as they calculate your hourly wage.” – Jake Fernandez
Here’s what Edward Lucie-Smith wrote to me after getting off a flight to Nassau: “Basically what I think is that there are no truly fixed interpretations, especially if you are interpreting images. An ‘interpretation’ consists in bringing two things together: the image itself and what the person encountering it brings to it. What he/she already knows and what the cultural context is. Even what he/she ate for breakfast that morning. Each encounter is unique and different.
The correct reply is: ‘Tell me what it means to you, what if anything do you get out of it? Then maybe we can discuss.’
Context is everything. Where are you starting from? Are you just blanking it, because it doesn't relate to your cultural norms? Socrates believed in asking questions, rather than in giving answers. So do I.” – Edward Lucie-Smith
“Looking at a work of art is first of all an act of faith. Every believer has the right to ask. However, creating a work of art is an even greater act of faith.
As for the question you ask, I consider this to be my only answer.” – Guido Nosari
“I believe we are talking mainly about visual art here but I wanted to make a little comparison: I have also been a musician and composer. A piece of music, particularly one without words, can convey an emotion, a scene, a feeling or thoughts in the listener. What we might call a beautiful piece of music resonates within us and the frequency and modulation that resonation creates in our brain is most often indescribable in words. The feelings evoked may or may not have a conceptual counterpart in language. And I would argue that most of the time it doesn’t.
I would make the exact same statement about a painting or sculpture. If you showed a Diego Rivera mural to an uneducated person, who knows nothing of the struggle and politics depicted in the work, there will be a resonation in that person that will likely bring about a feeling, a state of mind, or emotion. As I have said many times, even here on ArtBookGuy, the state of fine contemporary art has sunk to a level that requires conceptual meaning to give a piece validity.
We have lost so much of what visual art has been giving us for centuries. The human experience should not be limited to or by thoughts and meaning. Like a color, there is no meaning, but color is exceptionally powerful and an orgasm, a mushroom trip or a stroll through a forest are all powerful things with no set meaning.
Did you make your art to have a special meaning? Then sure, let’s talk about it. Are there aspects of that work that are non-verbal? I’m guessing yes. Is the entirety of that work non-verbal? Well then, let’s shut up and experience, feel and soak it up.” – Steve Brudniak
“I think Judy is right. For me, when people really look at the work and ask the question, it's a nice way to discuss the work and philosophize about it. But when people didn't look close and ask me that question, I get angry sometimes because they don't want to examine; they are lazy. A work has many, many layers. Who am I to see/know them all? Sometimes after five years, I see an old work and suddenly see a new layer and the “meaning” of the work suddenly changes. The question, ‘What is the meaning?’ is a very, very big question.” – Tijs Rooijakkers
“My answer is I accept this question with equanimity. Having said that, if you ask me to elaborate, here goes: Today, we are driven by the mind and not the heart, therefore we thirst for logic. Even if we feel joy while seeing the art, we are appeased only when we know why. This niggling 'why' triggers the question - what must the artist have meant to convey through the work of art? I would not take this question personally nor consider it demeaning or of questionable intent. Rather I see it as a folly of this time and space of evolution that we are traversing through.” – Mithu Basu
“Meaning is a feeling, purpose is a thought. When people look at an artwork and ask what does this mean, they typically intend, “What is its purpose?” These terms are conflated rather routinely, “Life has no meaning” is the common one; actually life is full of meaning, its purpose is what is vague. An artwork may at once produce feelings of meaning and it’s elements are of vague purpose.” – James Croak
“While I agree that art is open to interpretation and it can be left open to the viewer to decide what it means, I think it’s important for an artist to be able to verbalize what their art means to them, what they may have been trying to express and how it relates to other art or any number of relevant issues about their work.
To say, “Why even ask?”, is to deny the viewer understanding of the artist’s point of view and a chance to gain valuable insight into the work. While the viewer might not have had that same interpretation in mind and the artist might not have thought of the interpretation the viewer came up with, the dialogue can be extremely valuable. I have learned things about my work that I didn’t know upon hearing others’ interpretations. I enjoy explaining what I was thinking or where the images came from or whatever else might be a question that a viewer might pose.
While some artists seem to have trouble verbalizing about their visual work, I think it’s important to be able to do that in a cogent and intelligent way. If someone looking at one’s work is interested enough to have questions about it, that is a good thing and they should be given a thoughtful response. – Carolyn Oberst
“When people ask me what my work means, I always come back with the question, “How does it make you feel?” because, for me, that is the most important part of understanding a piece of art. If one has to explain their work over and over, maybe they missed their mark in their communication with the viewer and this goes for curators too. If someone stands up for a piece of work or had to write a booklet about what makes the work successful or has to write a long essay, maybe they didn't do their job either.” – Jon Coffelt
Well, I never! Is Jon saying that I should end this essay right here? Don’t worry dear reader, we’re nearing the end.
“I feel that when people are asking what a piece means, they are taking a passive role in the experience. Art has a language all its own, a language with millennia of practice and experience. So someone who asks, “What does it mean?” may just want to start a conversation. They also may not be practiced in the language and deep experience of art - even though they might have all of the credentials to appear to be involved artistically.
Often this comment just means, “I don't get it” and I'm not willing to go any deeper into myself to discover if it is necessary for me to understand it, so give me a quick synopsis so I'm not totally wasting my time looking or being with this piece of art.
It might be clear that I do not particularly like that question. I guess I think it's lazy. Although I often give my works titles that attempt to direct the viewer to my thoughts about the piece, I hope that the viewer might want to enter on his or her own terms, but if the piece does not invite, keep walking.
But of course, there are bridges that are built through explanation. I have had to explain my work again and again over the years and I’m always happy to see eyes opened that were closed prior to our conversation. In a world of contradictions, one prefers a thinking, active audience, but one must be open as well to a caring word of explanation. Sometimes it makes all the world of difference.” – Paul Santoleri
“Perhaps people confuse the ‘poetic moment’ art presents with the expectation of ‘meaning.’ Meaning is subjective. Art acquires meaning. Art makes life visible.” – Eric Ben-Kiki
“I basically don't like this question either, but as a former teacher, I was asked this question while teaching. I feel if someone is asking it, they usually have a good reason. I think if I were asked this question now, I might answer it with another question or questions. It could also be a good spring board for further discussion and interest in the work. The artist is also a teacher in many ways, but it's also good to have “students” think for themselves.” – Sharon Bartel Clements
“I do not have any particular reaction - either positive or negative - to the question “What does it mean?”. Unfortunately, I also do not have a ready answer for it. I seldom sit down with the specific intention to create a piece of work with any particular meaning or point of view. I have done so on occasion, but that is a random situation. For the most part, I am simply trying to make visually interesting work.
Where I struggle, is not with the question you asked, but with another one entirely. For me, the far more daunting question is, “What is this piece called?” I have always been reluctant to name any piece of work. I would far rather allow the viewer to arrive at his/her own conclusion, without any guidance or interference, on my part. This philosophy has usually been met with a small amount of confusion, frustration and - perhaps - a little resentment.” – G. Michael Novak
“I always try to transmit (meaning) on the geometric abstract screen. This feeling usually takes a long time to be observed by the spectator because each person does individual readings of my works. Art is wonderful, so each person sees something different.” – Erminio Souza
“This is a very important question about how art is “expected to be” by the viewer. I’ve always considered art as a multiple communication way. As the artist is encrypting a specific emotion or/and idea, the viewer will have his way of reading it. Considering art should vibrate in our minds and emotions. In theory, there should not be the same interpretation by two people; similar maybe, yet totally different, hopefully.
Once we read or talk about the artist's intention we are co-opted by that information, conditioned to see his way. That is the artist's sincere way, but not necessarily the viewer's. Is it interesting to understand what the artist meant? Of course, but only after emotional searching and personal observation. Both observations are correct!
Do I mind when I am asked? It depends. I like to talk about my work, to exchange but, not so much to deliver a one-sided communication.” – Alexandra Mas
“I have a certain expectation that the majority of people, particularly those who are not artists, will ask me what my work means. We expect painted images to tell stories, to communicate a message, to be the moral compass of a society.
The foremost principle is that to a large extent, content follows form, and when you allow that to happen … when you allow a work to evolve over time from sketch to finished piece, the content will emerge and “meaning” will be created. (However), the meaning will not be written in stone and will be subjective, slippery and without beginning or end.
If the meaning is absolute, then it’s likely the work is a piece of illustration, which is interesting as something different than art. The structure of the painting itself will create the meaning through the orchestration of an experience on the canvas.
The question of what it means doesn’t bother me as it can sometimes just lead to a more interesting conversation of what meaning is really about in the first place … and for those that insist on finding a defined meaning, there are usually enough signifiers in the work that they can create a narrative if they wish.” – Erik Nieminen
“To ask, “What does it mean?" is not an offensive or challenging question; it's an acknowledgment that the questioner is unsure either of the works intent/meaning/content, or is unsure of their own opinions and they desire a kind of affirmation or explanation.
If we share our works with others, then we are engaging in a form of communication. Consequently, it's perfectly reasonable for someone to ask what we mean. That's why artist's statements, curatorial statements and explanatory text at museums and galleries exist, to deepen the conversation.
Yes, it could be argued that artworks speak for themselves, but artists should be able to articulate what they do. That we may not want to is a different issue than if we are unable to.
About subjectivity, it's true that anyone experiencing an artwork is informed by their own life experience, as is the artist who created the work, so the meaning and interpretation may vary. However, the universality of the human condition is what makes great art; they are both deeply personal yet resonate broadly.” – George Kozmon
“I generally don’t like the question because putting a work of art into words has its limiting effect. Words are often pre-loaded and they are like little cages for meaning. Of course, there are people who can do wonders within these constraints. They are called poets (some write about art). Art is a mystery and many folks have limited tolerance for mysteries.” – Adam Niklewicz
“Over the years, the question always come up and I do not really care because what I see in the work is only for me and everyone will have their own interpretation.
Not one to title my work, “Untitled,” I like to leave an open pathway, a sort of gateway where people will read within the title something to grab onto. But in many ways, ‘What does it mean?’ really needs to be seen from the one asking the question and shouldn't really be seen as something insulting or a time for us to be intolerant.
There are genuine people out there who take time out to see shows; they go because they’re either a lover of art or inquisitive. Either way, I take it as a moment to promote my work. Who knows? It might be the big buyer you have been dreaming of.” – Simon Rigg
“I think that people ask, ‘What does it mean’ for a couple of reasons. They might be confused by the painting and in that confusion, they can't find a way into it, but yet are intrigued enough to ask you to help them to understand it.
Also, they might really love the painting, but don't see how they would explain it to their spouse or friends who might come over to their house and see it. In this case, they want a justification, a narrative or just a conversation starter to help them out. Or, they're just naturally curious about the motivation of people and when they ask what does it mean, what they're really asking is, ‘Why did you paint this?’ which is also a valid question.
When anyone asks me a question about my work, I respect their exploration into my work, and I try to take the time to engage them in a conversation. I do this because it excites me to be given a chance to connect to someone who is curious about art and it allows me the chance to work out in words something that was created wordlessly.” – Margaret Withers
Well, how’s that for a conversation? I must say, this one has given me quite a workout … excellent.
Something just crossed my mind. I spend a great deal of time chatting with artists and writing about contemporary art and culture. Much of that time, I’m either asking questions or exploring issues. This is really what ArtBookGuy is all about: dialogue.
If no one ever walked up to an artist – or anyone else - and asked, “What does it mean?” Where would we be? Would we have any hope?
Just imagine ... If no one ever asked that question ever again, wouldn’t it be time for us to just pack it all in and give our lives completely over to automation? We’re dangerously close already. Are we not?
Thank God, we’re human beings with free will and big mouths, so that means we’ll always have lots of questions.
“What does it mean?” Are you kidding me? That’s just the beginning and as far as I can tell, there’s no end in sight.
How to Fix the Artworld: A Survey