The meaning of meaning

Andrei Rublev, The Holy Trinity, c. 1410

Several years ago I came across an article that lamented the loss of meaning in painting. (I can’t track it down.) It occurred to me at the time that the problem was not that meaning had been removed from painting, but that it never had any.

The primary sense of the word meaning is that of definition—not fully appropriate to this case, but worth bearing in mind as the gloss of this use casts a monolithic shadow of literalism across our terrain. In art, meaning is generally used as a synonym for content. In this application, meaning is message; it is what the painting holds and delivers, what is “contained” by the painting and what is consumed. The painting becomes a bearer of information, information that is received and understood by the viewer. There is an appeal for something artist and viewer could point to as probative (regarding the value of the painting) and determinate. The presumptions here are prima facie untenable. “Art is not a telegram,” Lyotard once said. Meaning and content in this case imply something discrete, a quantum, something that can be deduced and set aside as fact. This closes the door on the complex of interactions that constitute the conversation of art in our moment, and even of prior moments, and reduces the potential of painting rather than securing its value.

There is a legitimate practical concern of ensuring that one’s activity as an artist is not…meaningless, nugatory, but assuming fixed coordinates for meaning is not effective, and also has a nostalgic timbre that ignores the entropic nature of art in our moment and the entropic impossibility of reversing course.

As an alternative, a conventional maxim one sometimes hears is “meaning is what happens,” which is fine as far as it goes but it doesn’t go very far. Posit further then that meaning does not reside in the body of the work but instead begins with the experience of the viewers; that the artist is the first viewer, and from there meaning accrues in incremental and polyphonic fashion in the public sphere; that there is nothing irreducible “contained” in the painting as object; that agreement on subject matter in the work comes from agreements reached outside the scope of the painting, though these may be employed by the artist (e.g. iconography).

When the “content” of a painting is evaporated, or found to be non-existent; if the painting is not a means of expression; if there is not consensus on the significance or purpose of a painting or artwork, what is left to the artist? What form can meaning take? Are alternatives necessary? Is this a kind of nihilism, or cause for optimism? If one accepts these propositions, what products or activities are sensible for painting, for art?


I’ve been dilatory with posting, mainly due to travel for much of the last three weeks. I returned this weekend, and had a radiant, amusing and perhaps not unrelated dream on Sunday night. Some friends and I were in a cathedral, and the interior was filled by the colored light of tall stained glass windows. A friend asked me something and I replied, “Stained glass was the conceptual art of the 12th century.” It had something to do with the divine figures portrayed in the glass being manifested as bodies of tinted light inside the cathedral.