Meaning – Interpretation of Contemporary Art
The idea that all works of art have a meaning, that they can be interpreted, appears far from obvious. The opposite view, namely that art works are sometimes or often incomprehensible and indescribable , is not at all uncommon, particularly with respect to ‘modern’ art. Not that one categorically denies that these (i.e. modern) art works are or can be meaningful entities, in the sense that they may communicate something that we can understand. On the contrary, there is something like a widespread consensus in the community that all art works should be meaningful . Very often, however, this is no more that a vague feeling. The question how the artistic meaning is rooted in what the concrete work of art shows, is often suppressed. Whatever important information the study of an art object can yield, the explanation at the end often boils down to a reproduction of the elements of the artefact, to a description of its content, of what is visible, of what one can point to. Yet, no other question concerning art is asked more often than that of its meaning. No matter how one looks at the latter: as the content or the subject of the artefact, as a sense realized by the spectator, as an item of communication or as an untold deep truth which can only be sensed intuitively, as a kind of aesthetic revelation whereby the work of art only refers to itself without making any proposition about reality … meaning is always the key question of any interpretation of art.
When we look at pictorial expression globally, it appears that there are basically two divergent codes or modes of expression: the figurative and the abstract. It is clear that art works using the figurative code are the more accessible. In all cultures, some specific figurative forms have a determined, symbolic meaning. The figurative art of painting can, just like language, transfer meaning, because it works with clearly recognizable elements representing a specific meaning. You can ‘read’ a painting by Magritte because he arranges certain recognizable objects from reality in such a way that they produce a new meaning. The fact that the image carries a meaning implies that it operates more or less like a language. Yet, within the reproduction no elements can be isolated that correspond to or bear a similarity with elements of language, like words for example. All elements of the picture cling together in an image that can be perceived at one glance (an exception is the reproduction of a ‘series’). But an abstract picture is difficult to interpret. Abstraction operates with signs that do not refer to elements from reality; it inscribes itself into a different order.
Semiotics, which studies verbal as well as non-verbal communication as a transfer of meaning(s), starts from the idea that an image has to be described as a rule-governed or codified system of signs in which the meaning is imbedded. It assumes that the abstract image possesses an organized structure that carries a certain meaning. The question then is if dimensions like left and right (or other dimensions) have a fixed value. In most cases a painting and by extension a series are automatically determined by the direction of reading from left to right. But that direction is not at all a fixed rule. A description of an image as a ‘system’ or as a ‘language’ is far from accurate because none of its structures is compelling, in the way that the structure of a natural language, as a set of rules that determine elements like the place of subject, verb and other elements is compelling. If in a work of art we recognize certain items as signs, it is because we are aware that they are ‘presented’ as signs: they do not ‘mean’ on the basis of a predetermined code. Meaning in this case is not a phenomenon of the language as code, but appears to occur when the code is realized. That is also what happens with abstract art, which explains why it is so difficult to understand it. It also explains why one often assesses the value of a particular piece of art intuitively, which then makes it depend strongly on the psycho-physical constitution of the spectator. The artist himself need not bother about determining the ‘meaning’ of his work; he need not interpret or vaguely rely on his feelings to produce it; he must rather concentrate on the code.
“C’est que l’art se fait dans le monde des formes et non dans la région indéterminée des instincts.” (H. Focillon)
Sensation is a reaction of our emotional life; the response of the psyche to a perception is not an event in its own right: it is part of a chain reaction and occurs within a complete orchestration of sensitive perceptions and gets its place in the pattern we call emotion. What Worringer meant in his Abstraktion und Einfühlung, was that there are two models of art according to whether man tries to render his eidetic images or to avoid them. If man enjoys the world that surrounds him with open senses, he tries to identify himself with the things of that world and already during the perception itself he discovers in the object values of feeling that match his own feelings. Worringer expresses this form of aesthetic experience in the following formula: “If the feeling we discover in an object is one that we can enjoy and accept as a part of the objective reality of our surroundings, we shall feel in harmony with the object and find it beautiful.” (W.Worringer, ‘Abstraktion und Einfühlung’)
The words ‘beautiful’ and ‘feeling’ in this formula sound abstract and may be largely applicable to any form or work of art. They belong to the subjective world of each individual. Form, colour, structure and innumerable other elements that one finds in art, can all be either beautiful or ugly depending on the feeling of the spectator. Here we can distinguish a difference between art that tries to meet certain feelings and art that tries to evoke a new feeling; besides a certain objective content that we often find in a work of art, we can also find something of ourselves in it. Man continually creates things in his own image or, more concretely, modeled on his own symmetry. He has always been interested in the geometry of his own body: the symmetry of the face and the whole body, the binary (eyes, ears, arms, hands, feet, breasts…), so much so that he even uses his own body as primary instrument of measure: the thumb, the foot, the elbow, the thickness of the finger, man’s height… Pursuing this line of thought, we also find geometry in human behaviour: running from one point to another (a straight line) or dancing around (a circle), row dances (parallelism). These elements can be found in music. To this we may add consciousness and man’s experience of the rhythms of his own body (heartbeat, running, breathing…), as origin of the rhythms pervading artistic creations.
The problem of contemporary art, if one wants to understand it, is that it has become self-referential and does not refer to anything beyond the image. For a start, when looking at such a work of art, one will have to loosen oneself of one’s intellectual presumptions. One has to be satisfied with what one sees: be sensitive to visual and spatial aspects like measures, volumes, rhythm, colour constrasts, matter… The meaning of such a work will depend on the extent to which all these elements fascinate us. This development produces a growing insight into the free, independent character of a work of art; it implies a vision of the world in which a high degree of autonomy is granted to the aesthetic sphere. Artistic research sets itself the target to analyse and define again the mutual relations of the aspects of the image and the means which are used to create it, as well as the basic content to which it gives form.
Good criticism is necessarily based on interpretation. It contains two phases. First one has to figure out the type of meaning created by the image (analysis of the means of representation, basic elements, central idea). The second phase, however, is dominated by the autonomy of the critic. The critic now evaluates the ‘sense’ expressed in the work, proceeding from the question of its value and significance for us. But that value is often already determined by the question if the work does of does not succeed to carry meaning. It follows that evaluation is often an effect of the description of a work. There is still something else going on except mere idealizing. Idealizing assumes that the same thing could also have been put more simply. Art criticism works with words, and that may be its misfortune. In literature it is possible that criticism becomes literature in its own right: good literary criticism is also good literature. Author and critic have the same material at their disposal. Whoever fails to master the material as critic, gets stuck. But an art critic does not discuss a painting with paint. The only art critic is a another work of art. The critic often disclaims a work, either because it fails to determine its significance against the existing horizon of expectation of a tradition, or because it recognizes this ‘sense’ as a deviation from tradition, but rejects it as irrelevant or senseless. Art criticism that reduces the distance between public and art in an amusing and intelligent way is rather scarce; the whole individual and thus critical element has nearly disappeared from art criticism. What is still considered as the ‘personal’, is often hardly more than facile impressionism: a touch here and an impression there. The task of the art critic is neither to ‘explain’ a work of art nor to ‘educate’ people, but to sharpen their judgment, so that they can judge for themselves.
The paradox of art criticism is that it has to describe a work outside an artistic context which is perpetually in motion. Art stacks layer upon layer or disrupts layers, in an ongoing change. But whether it builds or destroys, there is no work of art that does not react to the previous one. Some people derive from this the idea that there is something like progress in art, something like a revolution or an avant-garde. That is something you can ask yourself, because what presents itself as such may be only a layer among layers. Avant-gardists are in fact experimentalists, they play a game without limits, their work is a challenge and an adventure. To describe the avant-garde, four essential characteristics could be distinguished. Firstly, the refusal of every form of instutionalizing. Avant-gardists build up to destroy immediately again (“The real Dadas are against Dada”); they are aggressive, against society as well as against themselves; they almost destroy for the sake of destruction. What often brings the final blow to any avant-garde is the inevitable self-destruction. Secondly, their products, the works of art, are relevant for their own sake; what is important, is a certain mental activity and mentality that may possibly lead to the creation of products. Thirdly, we can find in nearly all avant-garde movements a political and social commitment: “power to aesthetics”. And finally, they think that the dynamics of the present modern times should be welcomed or even promoted (e.g. futurism had that as explicit starting-point.) Where normally the public comes to the artist, the avant-gardist himself seeks his public through manifestoes, performances, talking sessions,…
Between the artist and the public, or else between the producer and the customer/consumer, an intermediate partner has nested itself, which the artist cannot ignore: the widely varied market apparatus. That explains why success in avant-garde circles is a very suspect phenomenon. The big problem is that the market mechanism is so strong that there are in fact only two courses of action for the avant-gardist to take: either not to function, or to be assimilated. But with neither course his goal is reached. There is in fact no place for the avant-gardist: he is supposed to create his own space, but when this is done, he becomes institutionalized. One could say that the market mechanism is a necessary evil for someone who wants to function as an artist. For the avant-gardist, this would mean that a split will occur between himself and his work. His creation will have a short run as an avant-garde work, because it will soon be encapsulated and take its place among the many dozens or hundreds of art works which it defies. Of course, the artist stays free to start all over again. Avant-garde is condemned to loose its identity from the moment it becomes assimilated as a marketable product.
Since pictural art has become autonomous, it forms a world apart with its own targets, standards and codes of behaviour. It exists in the margin of reality, of the practices of everyday life. The work of art often confronts the public with unacceptable values, but the island position of art in contemporary society prevents these elements from becoming harmful. That is the price with which society makes the artist pay for his autonomy. We are confronted here with the ‘l’art pour l’art’-principle. A genuine artist works primarily for himself and his immediate surroundings. But people interested in his work will want to get in touch, so that the artist who does not want to alienate himself from society will run the risk to have to give up (part of) his autonomy and see his work transformed into a marketable product, more or less like the product of a baker who bakes bread in order to sell it. Like the baker, the artist may or will have to work for the market, meet the demands and tastes of the public. Autonomous art (originating from the ‘l’art pour l’art’-principle) as well as consumption art are both forms of institutionalized art. I think everyone agrees that the ‘l’art pour l’art’ current is the more honourable of the two.
The work of art is becoming more and more a product of current artistic programs, which can be situated in innumerable fields. It is becoming more and more difficult to determine what can be valuable as an art work resulting from these programs. The question is no longer if there is anything like the autonomy of the work of art as it was conceived by the first avant-garde; the question now concerns the autonomy of the artistic context, as a process that fans out in many directions, media and materials. Curiously enough, these comprehensive artistic programs are given form in art criticism . The description of individual works has become a near impossible task for the art critic, because things can only be explained on the basis of comprehensive programs. Such criticisms function as constant feedback, which in turn gives new impulses to the circuit. The self-questioning of present-day art enhances its critical function, so much so that the boundary lines between art and art criticism are becoming blurred. In the end, the ambitions and targets of present-day art are so general in character that it is not directly clear what it is all about. Its research is fundamental, is part of the extensive program that goes beyond the concrete. The work of art is then no more than a temporary application, a concrete deposit, a stepping stone in a process of research that finds its justification in itself.
There is yet another phenomenon and that is the talking museum director, or the organizer of exhibitions. The average curator of a museum of contemporary art sees his exhibition policy more and more as a critical activity, which shows not only from the accompanying texts, but also from the selection, the position and the confrontation of the works exhibited. The museum is almost the only place where discussions about contemporary art needs no longer be fixed on the work, but can operate as a complex process and circuit of sense giving. Museum directors philosophize about what art should be like. In the museum they want to communicate ‘the moment of our culture’. They offer ‘concepts’. In short, the museum director has also become a bit of an artist. It is only a pity for him or her that the ‘moments of culture’ seem to follow each other so rapidly. Over the last years, there is a renewed interest in painting again. The problem of how to create a realistic image of reality is again a current issue. But it does not look as if a return to tradition is in the making. The direction that art will take is not to be predictable. Everything is volatile, has become fashion. Fashion has turned from a phenomenon in the margin into a substantial element of our time. Directions follow each other up in a quick tempo. The volatile, the ephemeral is the only thing that is predictable. Moreover, from the moment the artistic context gets the character becomes subject of the laws of the market, the extension no longer seems to warrant a development and a progress of art through experiments with new materials, techniques, media. The circuit may yet be enriched, but it stays closed.
To conclude, one could say that there exists a new critical awareness among both artists and publics, a reflection on the autonomous status of art criticism. The controversy about the avant-garde as a limit of research, draws attention again to the sense itself of the phenomenon of art, and thus, yet more concretely, to the meaning of the individual work of art itself.
manuscript: ANTOON VERBEECK