John Berger, in his book, “Ways of Seeing,” tells of the story about the Original Sin
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat.
And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together and made themselves aprons….
He then asks:
“What is striking about this story?”
To which he immediately responds:
“They became aware of being naked because, as a result of eating the apple, each saw the other differently. Nakedness was created in the mind of the beholder.”
The book, as you may have guessed from the title, if you haven’t already read it, is about the role of perception in the way we “see” things. If you are an artist, whether of pastels, paints or photographs, it is a philosophical treatise of knowing you, it and them.
You – the artist, knowing your art, it – the art, as you made it and them – the audience who make sense, or not, of your art-work.
The book talks of the visual arts, and the first words after the title, “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” on the cover page, of the book say it all. But, words, written or said, are equal victims of perception. In the same book,
The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set, we know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight. The Surrealist painter Magritte commented on this ever-present gap between words and seeing in a painting called The Key of Dreams.
We rarely see a photograph in use which is not accompanied by writing: in newspapers the image is in most cases subordinate to the text; in advertising and illustrated magazines there tends to be a more or less equal distribution of text and images; in art and amateur photography the image predominates, though a caption or title is generally added. But the influence of language goes beyond the fact of the physical presence of writing as a deliberate addition to the image. Even the uncaptioned photograph, framed and isolated on a gallery wall, is invaded by language when it is looked at. (Victor Burgin, ‘Photography, Phantasy, Function’, in V. Burgin ed., Thinking Photography (London, 1982), p.192.)
No medium, visual or otherwise can ever portray the exact intended meaning. The intended meaning may not have been as discrete, in the first place, the way an audience seeks it. The purpose is to derive meaning. Pastels, paints, photographs, paragraphs and phrases are just the vehicles that carry the meaning – the ability to derive meaning then, rests solely on the spectator. In college, a professor of philosophy was the director for a one-act play. It was an abstract play – and the fact that it was in Marathi further aggravated my ability to make sense of it. After picking on a few friends’ brains and having at least got the basic meaning of the words, I asked the professor-director – what the play was really about.
“An artist is not obliged to explain his work of art.”
In those days, when I didn’t look beyond the obvious, this statement from him was profound. A bit egotistic perhaps, profound nevertheless. It almost became a dogma; since then I have never asked an artist, “…but what does it mean.” Over the years, I have since added on to the truism that the audience exercises an almost equal power, if not more, over the meaning and interpretation of art. Yet, the artist still somehow rules over the audience. The audience is more desirous of getting the meaning that the artist has portrayed, than making their own meaning. In abstract art, as the meaning becomes obscure, the audience delves into the life and background of the artist and attempts to extract meaning from there. A prolonged and often futile act, because such a context may have no basis about the meaning of the art-work itself: it may potentially distort the meaning.
The artist’s life now becomes the context of the art-work.
It happens in life too; in the potentially wrong context (usually the past) the “artists” life so dominates the context for the “spectator” that the current expression in itself is denied any value.
And that’s where meaning loses its meaning.