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Nymphs and Satyr, by William Bouguereau (Detail)
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  • The meaning of a painting

    by Brian K. Yoder

    Greg Scheckler wrote:
    I'd like to add that in Pollock's work, the imagery isn't actually random. I'd agree with Brian if it were purely random, but it isn't.

    Well, strictly speaking there are SOME patterns in the painting (like that it's roughly rectangular, reuses some of the same paint colors, that paint of the same thickness tends to fall in plops of about the same size, and so on), but the core issue is that there's no artistic content. In that respect it's random... he didn't say "I want this bit of red over there and this bit of blue over there." He just let it fly and that's where it ended up.

    Besides the scale, overall composition, selection of palette, viscosity of paint there is also the interaction with gravity. And other natural forces - these causes do lead to predictable effects that can be altered, manipulated and designed by the artist. The work is less predictable than many other methods of painting, but not really random. I'd call it semi-random, or, assuming the appearance of randomness in order to symbolize the random.

    But there is no "symbol of randomness" in a Pollock painting. It is an EXAMPLE of randomness he is showing the viewer. One could make a painting in which randomness is symbolized (perhaps by a drunken figure or a broken pot) but Pollock's paintings are not doing that.
    Brian's point that the claim "there is no meaning" is simpler and therefore preferable, I agree, is a good point. I tend to think that no artwork actually contains meaning at all, but rather, that artworks can provoke meaning, which thus means the artist's role is one of carefully selecting all the methods, symbols, and other provocations (lighting, staging, etc.) and that the audience must take an active role in interpretation and deciphering, which takes a lot of imagination and thinking in addition to seeing.

    It does take some effort to experience a work of art, but this idea that the meaning is brought into the situation by the audience rather than the artist is just wrong. If that's where the meaning comes from then why bother having an artist at all? This whole line about how the viewer provides the meaning in an artwork is one of the common ways that modernists attempt to deny the very foundation of the work of the artist... that he's expressing something through his work. Without that there can be no art, only crazy navel gazing and effects without a cause. Once can provoke people with all kinds of things, from a slap in the face to an intellectually stimulating treatise. "Things that can provoke" is a far broader category than "art".

    So then the question becomes are the provocations assembled aesthetically, intentionally, and effectively and so on, and can the audience (or most audiences) in interpreting the artwork enjoy the middle ground where their interaction and imagination of the artwork overlaps closely enough (not necessarily perfectly) with what the artist did that through the communicating the creation of meaning is possible. This leaves open the possibility of a wide array of variations, degrees of difference, many different kinds of art, and degrees of shared experience. Here I am agreeing with the writings of independent scholar Ellen Dissanayake (What is Art For? and Homo Aestheticus)

    Sure it does... a very wide array. One that includes all kinds of non-art and shenanigans, as the modernist movement has been determined to demonstrate for many decades. If the intention of that artist was not served in a work of art or if he had no intention in the first place then it cannot be said that his purpose was successfully achieved can it?

    I object to the Modernist that are against the relationship with the audience (art for art's sake) or (artist's sake) and not for communicating with or interacting with the audience. The use of representational, naturalistic imagery in artwork is in my experience far more capably understood by most audience members than the use of non-objective or semi-random imagery. But the pitfall is that sometimes people think the artist is not using the imagery poetically, and is instead merely mimicking the ways things look.

    Not only that but sometimes the artist thinks that too, and that's what gets him into the problems with photorealism.

    So I'm not sure what a good solution is except to occassionally break the illusioneering a bit, and point back to the fact that it's a painting (just as Ruskin suggested) (as did Poussin, David, Ingres and many others).

    I don't think that's remotely necessary. Who could not know that it's a painting? Why bother saying something that's blatantly obvious?

    What we really need is to actually teach people (whether artists or their audiences) what art is, how it works, and what it's for. Currently we teach them that it's everything, nothing, or whatever someone in authority claims it is. We teach that there are no rules or boundaries in art. That there is no definition of art. That the one thing that one must never ever do is define or "constrain" art. We teach them not to ask questions about art... at least not the ones that the modernists don't have good answers for. We teach that everyone is an artist and that all art is just as good as any other art or even non-art. It is amazing that under all of the confusion and lies promoted by such large and well-funded institutions some people still manage to see the truth of the situation as it is. If we did that, nobody would confuse photorealism for art.

    --Brian