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.

Some thoughts on Irwin's "Whose Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue3"

As I mentioned in the prior post, something I found noteworthy in viewing Dorsky’s films was the heightening of the sense of perception, awareness and attentiveness, and how that persisted beyond the darkness of the theater. It put me in mind of what occurred during and after seeing Robert Irwin’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue3 at Pace in New York on a nasty February day in 2007.

The complex visual qualities of that work were manifold and have been well documented elsewhere (here and here, for example). One quality that was less analyzed was one’s attention to others in the gallery, and how the viewing was actually better and more engaging when there were other people in the room.

It began as one registered the range of behaviors of other visitors, a commonplace for looking at art in public. A fellow in a windbreaker, still shivering from the chill and shock of the almost horizontal winter rain, eyes adjusting, not yet able to focus on that which he came to see, ambled idly around the perimeter, just beginning to size up the thing that will either provoke a sophisticated sensory experience or a brisk withdrawal, the pointless drenching to be recounted to colleagues in exasperated tones later over a restorative bourbon, perhaps. Conversations, as a pair orbits the gallery together and compares observations. A blithely executed 180 degree spin and exit.

Then, as one stared down (or up) into the highly reflective rectangles, the specters of the other viewers entered the tinted fields and became part of the artwork; their movements enlivened the static world of the mirroring panels. Despite being just across from you, the illusions of these persons was magnetic enough to draw you into a compelling counter-reality. They strolled through glassy chambers that appeared to be more than 20 feet below the level of the floor, while their perfectly audible comments seemed incommensurate with the visual distortion.

Disjunctions such as this sharpened one’s attention. The other viewers’ presence added an extra dimension to the--already dense--experience of the work, a dimension unavailable to a lone viewer. They spurred and expanded one’s own perceptual and interpretive apprehension as they pursued their own. This dynamic in an artwork is rare if not unique.

The enhanced attentiveness that occurred with Red, Yellow and Blue3 was duplicated while watching Dorsky’s films. I recall how disappointed I felt if my mind wandered, how I felt that I was cheating myself, partly for not being in the now, and partly for missing a spectacular shot. The acuity cultivated in the experience of these artworks carries over into the street, onto the bus and into other activities and thoughts.

Well, so what?

Well, from an artistic point of view works like this operate as a kind of gift, one that brings us back to ourselves, into the moment and not elsewhere, abjuring monophonic message, and turning the art experience over to us. This is not common. It is a result, self-consciously in Irwin’s case, at least, of focusing on keeping the viewer participating and active. This initiative begins to take apart the notion of “content” in art. This is a notion that can cause a lot of confusion, even in cases where its possibility may be explicitly repudiated.

From a personal point of view, these works tacitly ask questions about how one conducts one’s life, both in the macro and micro view, which always carries the possibility of inciting pretty lively meditation and dialogue.