Saturday, 28 April 2012


What is meant by the word meaning? How do artworks come to form or suggest meanings? Is meaning 'in' artworks or do they mediate or embody meaning? Can it be said that artists are the ‘authors’ of meaning even when it is the product of luck or serendipity? Is meaning even necessary to art?

Within the context of art, when we talk of meaning, the term is usually used to refer to the implications and significances evoked by objects, images or experiences. Meaning, in this sense, is a process of signification where the references and associations elicited or articulated by artworks form some kind of coherent message (where the ambiguities add up).

A widely held assumption about meaning is that it is somehow contained 'within' the artwork, put there – concealed even - by the artist, ready for explication by an experienced viewer or critic who will draw out the 'hidden' meanings and lay them bare for the rest of us to see and to scrutinise. According to this view, 'weak' artworks and 'non-art' (pictures, snapshots etc.) simply do not contain any meanings because no meanings have been put there by the authorial ingenuity or imagination of an artist. The handy thing about this approach is that it radically simplifies the complexity of authorial intention (not to mention the attribution of “greatness”) whilst at the same time distinguishing art from non-art: if it is not made by an artist then it’s not art and if the artist didn’t intend it then it is not “the” meaning. Straightforward as this view - frequently known as the "Intentional Fallacy" - appears, it quickly flounders as soon as we begin to ask how even the most accidental of snapshots can sometimes be so self evidently laden with meaning. How did the meaning get there? "You put it there" comes the reply - "You read it into the image - it wasn't there beforehand." And how could we expect the answer to be any different? If meaning only ever gets 'into' things by being deliberately 'put' there then this is the only logical explanation.

Perhaps a little Structuralist theory might provide a means to explore these issues in greater depth. Structuralism holds that language can only be understood - is only intelligible - as a system of relationships. Words in themselves are simply sounds or marks upon a page and it is only through their relationships to a wider set of socially negotiated and agreed meanings (definitions) and rules (grammar, syntax etc.) that words are able to be deployed in intelligible communication. In comparison, there are no rules or definitions of the visual, of art, images or appearances to nearly the same degree. There is, nonetheless, a diversity of symbols, metaphors, references, associations, strategies, genres, forms, styles, codes, conventions and traditions, all of which inform both the production and the interpretation of artworks. Without these rich and varied resources there would be no possibility of communication through images.

“The expression on my face ‘ says something’ about who I am (identity) and what I am feeling (emotions) and what group I feel I belong to (attachment), which can be ‘read’ and understood by other people, even if I didn’t intend to communicate anything as formal as ‘a message’, and even if the other person couldn’t give a very logical account of how s/he came to understand what I was ‘saying’.” – Stuart Hall, “Representation” 

The meaning of any given artwork is therefore not simply the product of the artist’s intention but is constructed through and within a wider set of relationships and these relationships also enable and inform the interpretation of artworks. In order for artworks to communicate therefore, artists and viewers  are reliant upon a variety of pre-existent resources, just as in daily life we all rely upon a multitude of methods, tools and materials that we ourselves have neither invented nor produced.

I don’t mean to suggest here that artists are not the authors of their work. Artists do articulate meanings through their work but, whilst it is important to recognise that these meanings are both enabled by and reliant upon factors outside the immediate control of artists, so too is it important to recognise that artists stumble upon meanings ie: they make discoveries through the process of working and these new discoveries are often far more profound and original than those they deliberately concoct.

In the same way that artists inadvertently make discoveries they also find images and artifacts that seem to speak with an articulacy that no amount of deliberate intention could summon. But since these discoveries have not been intentionally created and are, on occasion, simply the result of accidents, incompetence or serendipity, is it logical that artists should be able to claim authorship for them?

Even though my 19 month old son speaks only a few words, he occasionally blurts out what sound like perfectly formed sentences. Despite the momentary surprise, it’s immediately obvious that he neither recognizes these as meaningful nor does the context in which they emerge suggest that they are deliberate. In order for his communications to have meaning they need to be uttered in the right context and, above all, they need to be repeatable. This aspect of repeatability is also vital in the output of artists. Repeatability is what distinguishes luck from perception. A single astounding snapshot is simply the product of probability, whereas an interrelated selection of astounding snapshots demonstrates an uncommon level of editorial selectivity, awareness and skill. In other words, the more a success is repeated, the more evidence there is of an insightful intelligence (a perception) at work.

After all, if it were the case that art could only be brought about by intentional action then discovery would be an impossibility. We can't know what we are going to discover before we discover it, otherwise it wouldn't be a discovery. We may have a hunch, or even a hypothesis, but until we encounter the actuality we can never be completely certain of the outcome. Why else experiment?

Does an artwork have to mean something in order to qualify as art? The short answer is “No”. Art is not a measure of meaning, which is to say that there is no correlation between meaning and whether something is art or not. However, it is difficult to conceive of any cultural experience that is entirely devoid of meaning. As social beings it would seem that our overriding preoccupation with communication predisposes us to notice the telltale signs of meaning in almost everything we encounter, from the lines of my hand to the configuration of coffee grounds in the bottom of a cup, from the “changes in one's shadow, after one's lover has departed in anger” to the beckoning gesture of a cat’s raised paw. Nonetheless, meaning isn’t all there is to art. All art is essentially experiential in nature and in that sense it embodies experience. Even the most intangible of conceptual art retains a dimension of what it ‘feels’ like to imagine; of what it means to see; of what it means to mean.


Tamsin said...

Mmmm..., meaty as ever. It seems to me that there are three different kinds of meaning involved in a piece of art. The first is what the artist intended, or, as I remember Anish Kapoor saying, I think, recognised in something seredipitous (isn't that also a skill or sensibility, the capacity to see something interesting in a rust stain?). The second is the meaning evoked within the person looking at the art, which is an emergence from their own personal experience, world view, culture, individual meaning-making processes etc. This might well be utterly different from the meaning as understood by the artist. The third is a complicated cultural thing, to do with trend, and culture, and connectedness - and this is the thing that says that Damien Hurst or David Hockney or whoever's work you don't personally get anything from is meaningful, to the point that people will 'invest' in it with the hope of future financial gain. Off the top of my head....

J. Hamlyn said...

Blimey, you beat me to it Tamsin! Those exact 3 positions - artist, viewer and audience - are the next thing I'm intending to post about.

This Brazen Teacher said...

"All art is essentially experiential in nature and in that sense it embodies experience."

This is one of the core truths of my grad school research. If all art is at it's core embodied experience, can art making be used as a tool to help students reflect on their lived experience? AND if the answer is yes, what are some methods? AND if we determine methods, can we prove that art making used in this way can improve awareness of lived experience?

Theoretically it seems this has been addressed by many before me... the answers are yes to all.

Practically not so much. This is where I come in (hopefully) :-)

J. Hamlyn said...

I’d be really interested to know more about that research Brazen. I’ve never conducted any systematic practical research before but a few months ago I did a little experiment with eighteen 1st Yr art students where I split them into two groups and got each group to do the Alternative Uses Task (with paperclips). However, with one group I gave them paperclips to hold while they did the task. Despite the fact that several students complained that being given paperclips was a distraction, the group that held the paperclips consistently scored significantly higher.
I know of other similar research into movement ( and gesture ( but I’m not aware of any research that suggests such a compelling link between haptics and imagination. My findings just need to be more widely tested but unfortunately I’m not really in a position to do that.

Tamsin said...

Still thinking about the idea of art making being used as a tool to help students reflect on their lived experience. Why am I uncomfortable with the idea of art making as a tool? Perhaps because the tool is chosen by the teacher and given to the student? And, I'm a little uneasy with the idea of 'helping students reflect on their lived experience', though of course this is what a great deal of education is now designed to do. It's not that it isn't a helpful idea in principle, but for me this is the tutor, as in some way representative of an institutional agenda, attempting to manipulate inner experience. This whole thing makes me uneasy. How is the art student going to find their own voice when the institution is in there making suggestions about how it should speak?

I guess this relates to a point about the three kinds of meaning we discussed above. In my fledging little philosophy about this, it seems to me that as an artist you're stuffed if you start to try to take on meaning as expressed by either your viewer, or by the wider, 'art-world' audience. Once you start to do this, it seems to me, you're in a loop of second-guessing a nebulous Other, who, of course, you can never actually second guess at all (for the reasons already discussed). Aren't you then likely to lose contact with your own sense of meaning (which is likely to be half-formed, shifting, fugitive...) and end up in no-man's land? Or, I suppose, you're successful at this, and you end up in galleries making lots of money. I guess it depends what you want your art to be.

But I speak as someone outside of the art education world entirely. I can see your point about the paper clip. That would be teaching at its best, for me - teaching which really does expand and open out experience, challenging taken-for-granted limits, without imposing an alternative agenda. But this is hard, isn't it, as the teacher can't help but implement their own meaning-making processes all the time. And the (negative aspects of the) constraints of institutions have to accommodated somehow. I suppose if the teacher's meaning-making is committed to this kind of opening, and that teacher has something/someone in turn opening THEM out in new ways, we can live in hope...

J. Hamlyn said...

I Hope Brazen comes back on your point about ‘helping students reflect on their experience’. I’m assuming that she is having to generate an argument (and evidence) for the value of the arts component of education (as distinct from creative education) and is having to couch this in the terms that academia finds worthy of merit and attention. “Reflection” is an especially vaunted practice amongst educationalists because there appears to be such a close correlation between reflection and expertise. However, James Atherton for example, is very critical ( of the cult of reflective practice, arguing persuasively that reflection is a side-effect of expertise rather than a means toward it. He quotes Moon (1999):

"In education, the main interest in reflective practice has come from teacher education more than those engaged in teaching, or who are concerned about learning..." and
"A generalization that seems to apply to teaching, nursing and social work is the fact that there is relatively little concern for the effect of reflective practice on the subject of the professional's action ... Since the improvement in learning [etc.] is deemed central to the purposes of these professions, this seems to be a surprising omission. ... Copeland, Birmingham and Lewin (1993) ask a critical question: 'Do students of highly reflective teachers learn more or better or even differently?'"

If Brazen’s research could provide some of this evidence then presumably this would be extremely useful to move the discussion forward.

Your second point is a big one but I’ll try to be brief. We are, to some extent, that Other already. Surely that’s what “reflection” is largely about: seeing ourselves from the outside, in the way that Other people see us? But yes, you’re absolutely right: it depends on what you want your art to be since an audience might be the very last thing you need to help you flourish.

I’m just working my way through Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster at the moment and despite my huge reservations beforehand I’m finding it immensely thought provoking not to mention relevant to our discussion (if a little idealistically):

“We can thus dream of a society of the emancipated that would be a society of artists. Such a society would repudiate the division between those who know and those who don’t, between those who possess or don’t possess the property of intelligence. It would only know minds in action, people who do, who speak about what they are doing and who thus transform all their works into ways of demonstrating the humanity that is in them as in everyone”

Tamsin said...

Yes! Re reflection and expertise, I used to call that kind of thing 'reverse flow' - just because experts reflect doesn't mean that you can teach it round the other way, ie., that if you teach people to reflect then they'll become experts. Schon's study of architects was fascinating, but reflection and reflective practice seem to mainly be a technology now; a tool for training people to become experts at particular forms of internal surveillance...

I'm not sure about this Other thing. Surely the point of the idea of Other is precisely that which is not you? Of course you can argue from postmodernism, or certain kinds of sociological theory, or some theories of language, that we are entirely 'constructed' by language and culture. It's worth keeping this in mind, as all that stuff was a reaction to the disembodied, 'brain on a stick' views of the decontextualised human which preceded them. But, having established that the outside is inside and that in some ways there isn't really an inside - I still argue that certain forms of particularity emerge from within the specifics of conditions and constraints, and, as all these specific conditions are subtlely different, so too are the emergent forms that arise from them. X may be 'a working class woman' whose discourse and thinking and behaviour can be identified as culturally specific, but X is still in some ways quite different from all the other working class woman around her, because of the particularity of history and conditions etc etc.

In finding your voice as an artist, isn't it precisely this idiosyncracy, this particularity, which will ultimately be your voice? Doesn't taking account of how Others see you just muddy the waters, turning you back in the direction of trying please, or otherwise accommodate the views of these others?

I like your quote very much. Sorry for the long response. I must be in need of a complexity problem.

J. Hamlyn said...

Yes, I guess the postmodern is one route to counter the idea of the other conceived of as “all that is not you” but perhaps so is consciousness too. It might be argued that the formation of consciousness is a side effect of our ancestral attempts to predict the actions of others, to model their thoughts and to make better decisions based on those predictions. Consciousness might therefore be thought of this exact process turned back on itself.

Anyway, I think you’ve misunderstood me, or else I’ve been vague, or both. I’m not saying that artists have to second guess their audience prior to making their work in the way that we do when we speak for instance. But they do have a choice along a spectrum between the Humpty Dumpty end (ie: words [or works] mean whatever I want them to mean) and illustrative obviousness. If we are the products of culture, then there are codes, significances etc. that we might not only deliberately deploy but also discover in our work that come to mean something to us and these significances might actually have currency for others too and therefore be worth sharing.

Tamsin said...

Sorry if I've misunderstood you, which seems highly likely. I don't really know what I'm talking about in relation to wider art practices and art education. I only know really that for now I am indeed Humpty Dumpty. I will ponder on your last sentence, which seems to be worth pondering. I like the idea of discovering things in our work.

This Brazen Teacher said...

Seeing this just tonight!

Before I reply, let me start off by saying this: I will answer to the best of my ability, in the most "philosopherly" way possible (yes I made up a word.) Tasmin pointed out she is not an art teacher, and since I am not a philosopher, some things may be lost in translation. That being said, I'm excited to talk to people with a different vantage point!

My research will use art making as a way for art TEACHERS to reflect on their identities as an educators... specifically as a tool to improve practice and lived experience in the classroom. In my comment above I referred to "students," however in my research the students will be teachers.

Hamlyn you quoted a source:

"A generalization that seems to apply to teaching, nursing and social work is the fact that there is relatively little concern for the effect of reflective practice on the subject of the professional's action ... Since the improvement in learning [etc.] is deemed central to the purposes of these professions, this seems to be a surprising omission."

I agree... it is a surprising omission. Academia by and large focuses its resources on studying the methods and materials of teaching. Very little attention is paid to the identity that will inevitably shape these processes... the teacher.

Reflecting on methods and materials can only be a first step. We have a lot of research helping teachers identify and improve what they DO. There is much less research (if any) in helping teachers identify and improve who they ARE. Even writing it here, sounds frivolous. We still live in an academic culture that views the person as fragmented (and therefore unimportant) from practice. Yet who we ARE is a filter for all that we DO, and I believe that since humanity by and large still has a ways to go in acknowledging this truth, accounts for most (if not all) the problems on our planet... but I digress :)

How might we construct professional development opportunities that allow teachers to consider and then reflect on identity as a relevant mode for improving practice?

I think art making is an excellent way to consider and reflect on identity, for a few reasons:

1. The processes an artist undergoes in creating art, are nearly identical to the processes human beings undergo when consciously creating experience. (Incoming Dewey). Practice making art could conceivably = practice making experience in the classroom.

2. Art making even its most unconsciously completed forms, are physical manifestations of Self, and therefore excellent tools for researching the Self.

This Brazen Teacher said...

Tasmin, in regards to your questions. The primary concern I gleaned from your comment was that student reflections, and/or attempts to find their voices, will be manipulated by the eyes of institution and teacher. Art as a tool would not be a self-selected tool, but rather an imposed tool. These problems would render the art making as unreliable sources of data.

These are important points.

I believe a good teacher could do things to greatly reduce or even eliminate the negative affects an institution might have on student art making:

Using a collaborative evaluation model (between teacher and student), implementing qualitative instead of quantitative assessments, as well as utilizing discourse about audience, artistic voice, and the public school institution itself might be places to start. Additionally, all good teachers in the arts (at least that I know), maximize the amount of power and choice students exercise over content and media, in order to increase the likelihood that their artwork will be personal and meaningful.

My last point would be to reference Postmodern texts, which illustrate the ways our inner experience is a intimately connected to (and therefore manipulated by) the outer environment. Even if it is simply the "rightness or goodness" we hold in our minds as we make art, these conceptions are not purely from ourselves-- they are recipes in which all the external forces of our lives have added ingredients. We are products of a community and culture for the simple fact that we exist in it... therefore to a certain degree, our art is a product of that community and culture as well.

This is my way of saying that all artists... even in the privacy of their own homes are subject to manipulation.

I hope this addresses some of what was talked about. Admittedly, a lot of what you two were talking about went over my Brazen head... but man did I love it. Thanks for including me on this thread!

J. Hamlyn said...

Brazen, your focus on who and how teachers "ARE" sounds fascinating, though not without its challenges. I might be mistaken but you seem to be touching on the subject of ontology: the 'being' of the teacher? It's certainly a subject that appeals to a lot of artists, myself included - though I am far from an expert on the subject. You might find the current writing of educational theorist Ronald Barnett very useful on this subject, though his focus is on the student more than the teacher (at least in the articles I've read):

“Now, what we are witnessing is a new kind of world order in which the changes are characteristically internal. They are primarily to do with how individuals understand themselves, with their sense of identity (or lack of it), with their being in the world; this is a world order which is characterized by ontological dispositions.”

This Brazen Teacher said...

Heading to the library this evening... Ronald Barnett on my list :)

Tamsin said...

Hi Brazen, I agree, nothing is purely from ourselves. But also, in my view, we are not merely products. We emerge within the constraints of society and culture, but we emerge unpredictably and idiosyncratically. I wonder if you'd like Margaret Archer - do you know her? For example 'Being Human - The Problem of Agency'. She deals with some of this knotty stuff.

I think you're quite right about teacher identities being under-researched in many fields. When you say academia, do you mean the research in Higher Education? If you haven't looked at it, there is some interesting work in Adult Education and also Further Education contexts which does look into this. And also, actually, in Language Teaching, I think. Educational research seems to consist of many camps that rarely cross-fertilize. Your research sounds great.

Post a Comment