The Meaning of Art in 2018
By Chris Morin
Society has mostly concluded that ‘the meaning a work of art has’ is whatever it might mean to the person owning it. If the work resides within a museum or is public art, then the person viewing it determines the meaning. What the artist felt and thought when creating the work or what an art critic or expert might claim it means is not given precedence for determining the aesthetic qualities. This development in how to consider the meaning of art is rather recent, however, as the long history of art meaning and art appreciation provided for one of the earliest, most important branches of Western Philosophy.
Seattle, Washington has a wooded park a few miles north of the skyscraper downtown region. Green Lake—lined by old growth trees, inundated with hundreds of quacking-splashing waterfowl, a dozen different centers or playgrounds offering various activities—sparkles as an oasis in the metropolis. One hundred year old craftsman homes surround the park and have become some of the most expensive in the city. On a sunny weekend afternoon in the summer, 10,000 people might be swarming about the paths and grass fields.
Green Lake slopes inward, to the lake itself, and a two and a half mile loop around it serves as a hub for local runners. In the early 90’s, I used to run there while attending grad school at the University of Washington. Back then, a single artist often set up next to the running path, painted, and effectively captured the scenes occurring.
I passed by the painter’s open-air, working studio hundreds of times while doing laps. In my early 30’s and barely able to afford college expenses, I longed for but couldn’t manage to buy one of the paintings, which began at $1000. Now, 25 years later, I still recall some of his park-humanity-cityscapes, the most stirring images I’ve seen in person.
Plato essentially dismissed art by viewing it as the lowest of all forms, besides seeing it as powerful and therefore dangerous. Aristotle countered his mentor two generations later by saying that art is the realization, in external form, of a true idea; it provides pleasure, which we feel in recognizing likenesses.
Two thousand years later the preeminent philosopher Immanuel Kant wove a complex interplay between judgment, beauty, and harmony as being that which allows us to conceptualize the meaning of art. However, he cautions that fine art, the only art worthy of discussion in his estimation, must be considered by how it was created, which he further declares as necessarily following established artistic traditions. With this final point, for the first time a philosopher clearly defined and located the particular thing that is responsible for a work of art’s meaning, the artist.
A quite large piece of pottery in the gallery that my wife and I own comes from a Native American tribe of New Mexico. The narrow neck is sculpted so that it depicts a duck. Among the paintings around this water vessel are a number of deer symbols, each with a heart line. The Peynetsa family of the Zuni Pueblo, among the many tribes and pottery making families of the Southwest, has the right to paint the deer with heart line motif on pottery.
The vessel’s traditions and crafting process—gathering of local earth materials for the clay, hand coiling and then pinching to form the pot, firing it in a homemade adobe oven with saved animal dung, painting it with the pigments of collected local earth or plant materials—goes back at least a millennium, perhaps two, and is still the process followed for every pot. Due to being so laborious to make, it’s rather expensive.
A couple became quite interested in this particular work because they found it ‘fun,’ a word they mentioned a few times while pondering whether or not to get it. One woman was strongly drawn to it because her father was an avid duck hunter who liked to acquire ‘old arrowheads and tools of the Indians.’ Yet another couple considered purchasing it because it went with their dining room colors and they needed something ‘good sized’ to take up a particular space. We happen to like having it in the gallery because of its unique, dramatic beauty and assiduous handcrafting.
The earlier perspective—the artist determines the meaning of art—eventually begged the question “so who is qualified to tell us what the artist had in mind because, in most cases, the artist is not present to tell us?”
The philosophy movement of Structuralism in the early and mid Twentieth Century attempted to answer this question by arguing that experts, so called ‘qualified’ critics, were the only ones capable of establishing the meaning of art, in the absence of the artist. This somewhat elitist position inspired the Post-Structuralism movement and lead to the current thinking that art means whatever it means to each and every individual, whether the artist provides input or not.
Perhaps that high-end piece of Zuni pottery eventually will go to a person who thinks it ‘perfect.’ Then again, maybe the person who acquires it will feel moved by the earth tone animal motifs, is someone who has been to and resonates with the Pueblo culture of the Southwest, and is an individual who once tried to learn but gave up on making pottery. Either person can possess the duck pot; either person is capable of liking or even cherishing it; either person can determine its relative purposefulness for them.
In our society today, we get to determine our own meaning and the meaning of the things we own. We don’t require philosophers, art experts, or even politicians imposing upon us their understanding of art. It is ours, just like our lives, and its meaning is whatever we choose.