Picture first, meaning second – [Part II]

PICTURE FIRST, MEANING SECOND – [PART I] took you inside the mind of a Classical painter, who dominated fine art throughout the impressionist, post-impressionist, modern, and postmodern movements (so this was the main school of thought for the last 150 years). I explained that the vast majority of artists over the last 150 years cared about the arrangement of shapes, patterns, values, colors, and rhythms, but they did not care about content, meaning, or message.   These artists aimed to create a visual experience for the viewer, and they coolly tossed out meanings to accompany their paintings only after their picture came together.  Artists’ methods perplex onlookers who expect all artwork to communicate meaningful messages.  I want to share an article from ArtNews that speaks to these onlookers.

The article is called “How to learn to stop worrying and love the art you don’t understand.

It’s all in the title.  This article asks puzzled art collectors and museumgoers to halt their desperate clamor for elusive meanings, and just to appreciate the experience a picture offers.  This article also shows an array of experts trying to come to grips with the meaninglessness of most art (which of course is only meaningless because meaning was an afterthought and a rationalization following the artist’s picturemaking).  I want this article to help you understand that my “picture first, meaning second” ideology is not a lowbrow, fringe belief, but a necessary concession one must make in order to seriously engage artwork.

Children seem to have an easier time “getting it” than adults . . . I watch children in museums, especially looking at some of the so-called difficult work . . . They move freely throughout these pieces, and there’s a joy of discovery. I don’t think that to them the challenge is to understand but rather to observe and participate. Children might say, ‘Wow, that’s really neat,’ or just shrug their shoulders, but they don’t put their hands on their hips and say, ‘I don’t get it.’

Children focus on the experience–the meaning doesn’t add anything to the work for them.  If the work sucks when it doesn’t make sense, it still sucks when it does make sense.  Remember, meaning alone can’t carry a work of art because real art is an experience that affects a viewer, not a message telegraphed from artist to viewer.


Follow this link to the fine article: 

Picture first, meaning second – [Part II]

2 thoughts on “Picture first, meaning second – [Part II]

  1. JW says:

    Consider how this post relates to your most recent, “If your art does not accomplish at least one of these two goals, you fail.” (April 3, 2011). In that post you argue that garnering attention is an artist’s first priority. Attention is necessary before recognition and compensation – other goals of an artist.

    But recognition and compensation are dependent on the public. The public must like the works of an artist before the artist is recognized or compensated.

    Implicit in this particular is that the general public prefers art which conveys a message. If so, shouldn’t artists be conforming to the demands of the public, rather than appealing to public to change their expectations when viewing art? Want to get paid? Then make the art the public wants. Make art with a message.

  2. J Pat,

    Nobody says “I don’t get it” when they see Demuth’s FIGURE 5 IN GOLD. But ask them what it means. They probably can’t tell you. Meaning is something a viewer grasps for when she hates that a work is on the museum wall.

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