L'École Marchutz

Hands Off My Art's Meaning

Marchutz Fellow
A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.
— Flannery O'Connor

It is not uncommon, in the arts, to hear something along the lines of, “the great thing about art is that the audience is entitled to form its own opinion,” or “art is beautiful because it can mean different things, depending on the audience.”  I’m going to do something a little bit controversial and say that I disagree entirely.  This account for art robs the artist of any voice, and disallows truth in a work of art.  I’ll even go farther and say that an artist who creates a work of art the meaning of which is open to invention by his audience is lazy, and engaged in something less meaningful than true art.

Before I continue, however, I need to put a little disclaimer up: these are my own opinions.  I am not trying to claim that this is some kind of official stance on the part of the Marchutz School (although I don’t think I’m altogether out of line); I am using this blog as a way to get discussions started by stating my somewhat strong opinion.

Let’s start by looking at the idea I am criticizing.  This is the notion that art is subject to public opinion and individual interpretation.  This view is, in some sense, true.  It is the nature of anything on display, be it a work of art, a play or film, a piece of writing, that people will form their own opinions of it.  This cannot and should not be avoided.  Anything put at the mercy of the public will be judged.  People will like certain things, and dislike others, and I am not opposed to this.  But the public’s likes and dislikes do not necessarily mean anything.  Monet’s Impression Soleil Levant, for example, was blasted by critics and the public alike when it was first shown.  It is now considered to be in the top tier of all art.  Did it get better with age?  No.  It was always good, and it just took a while for most people to understand that.

The idea of meaning in art is a little bit harder, and I will not delve too deeply into it for now.  That is subject enough for a hundred blog posts.  But I will say a few words before I get to my ultimate point, which is that it is the artist, and not the public, who determines that meaning.  I call the “meaning” of a work of art it’s “content.”  I call it this because “meaning” has too much baggage.  The word “meaning” is reminiscent of sentimental meaning, in which, through association with certain memories, people impose stories on the art that do not exist within it.  I say they do no exist within it because they are not in the “form” of the painting.  The form is that which exists physically in a painting: the strokes, the lines, the color.  Any content in the painting is derived from its form.  The form is the only way an artist has to convey meaning, and consequentially, anything not physically present on the surface is off limits in terms of content or “meaning.”  Otherwise, an artist has absolutely no control over what she is saying.  We are all willing to say that art is a form of expression.  But if people rob that expression of its voice by adding on any interpretive meaning they so please, then it is no different from a blank canvas.

Similarly, if a painting’s content is relative to the viewer, then it has no truth-value, meaning that it really is saying nothing and asking viewer to talk to himself.  It is for this reason that I call the artist who makes art that is conceived of as being relative to the viewer a lazy artist.  He has not put in the effort of thought and practice required to create a work whose form and content are united.  He might as well have written “think about something” on a piece of paper and hung it up.  That would not be art; it would be an exceptionally vague philosophical thought experiment.

I hope I have not offended anyone.  I’m sure I’ve stirred up a whole bunch of opinions, and invite anyone and everyone to disagree with me by posting comments.  I’ll be curious to hear what people think, and I’ll be happy to respond.

-O’Neill Cushman, alumni fellow