Critics and academics have it backwards. They often preach that great artists begin with a worldview or a conviction and end with a painting or sculpture that communicates that message. Such is the case for some artists such as Dali, Manzoni, and Duchamp. However, the vast majority of artists in the past 150 years coolly tossed out meanings for their works only after their pictures came together.
Take Cezanne, Whistler, Pollock, and Matisse. In a sense, they are all Classicists because they care more about composition than message. They care more about color and tonal relationships than meaning. Most Modernists and Post-modernists followed the mantra “Design first, meaning second.”
I’ll submit a painting of my own as an example. As I was painting, I was thinking about colors and brushstrokes and positive and negative space. My right brain was buzzing and my left brain was silent. The symbolism in this large painting is less interesting than the experience of trying to make sense of the space, but if you want to take a stab at the symbolism, start with the title. It’s called “Twin Stars.” The purple star brings growth and the crimson star brings decay. OR the purple star, linked to the purple tangle of leaves, represents intellect and the crimson star, linked to fire, represents emotion. But meaning and symbolism can only carry a painting so far. Here’s the problem: if this composition and these colors don’t appeal to you aesthetically, then who cares what the stars symbolize?
An artist should never expect an artwork’s meaning to make that work worth looking at. Only visual “compellingness” can carry a work of art.
A painting must create superficial visual impact–it must earn the viewer’s investigation into “what does it mean?” Otherwise, it shouldn’t be a painting, or at least not a painting in public view. Likewise, a journalist earns a reader’s commitment to reading the article when the journalist produces interesting, well-articulated ideas in the first paragraph. Should a journalist fail to stimulate the reader up front, he doesn’t deserve the reader’s investment. Journalists know this. Why don’t artists? Why do artists think they don’t need to earn the viewer’s attention? If the work is too dull or too quiet, too inane or too convoluted to entice the viewer to look hard and to thoughtfully investigate its meaning, then whatever message or whatever story lurks inside that dismissible artwork should not have taken the form of visual art. And if the artist feels he must broadcast his message to others but cannot muster a visually worthwhile vehicle for that message, the pen and the keyboard are at his disposal.
Thomas Cole was a visionary and a fine craftsman like most artists whose works are worth looking at. To improve the painting’s visual impact, he would gladly include elements that detract from the “meaning” he is cultivating in this painting, but he would not compromise the aesthetics of the painting’s visual experience in order to clarify, distill, or bolster the painting’s “meaning.”
I take a big risk in speculating that Thomas Cole worked in this manner, because the curatoriat traditionally regards Cole as a Romantic painter. That is, they believe him to be a meaning-maker, not a picture maker. I disagree, however. It’s conceivable that he wanted to present a utopian vision to viewers, but I suspect that he’d wait until completing or nearly completing a painting to ask himself, “What does it mean?” I suspect that meaning did not drive these paintings.
Were utopian visions deeply personal subject matter for Cole, or were they just a point of departure to get him painting? Perhaps a bit of both. Other painters used banal, impersonal points of departure to get the paintbrush moving. For example: engine parts (Fernand Leger and Francis Picabia), apples (Paul Cezanne and Thomas Morandi), or the alphabet (Jasper Johns and Richard Marquis).
Most artists’ real passion surrounds the picture-making, not the meaning-making. And why not! Otherwise, artists produce work that ought to be spoken or written rather than illustrated.
“Great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the artist who painted it.” –Seth Godin.