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When Does Art Mean?


Norway’s National Gallery is in Oslo, tucked into a corner of Oslo University. It houses a modest collection, with the main focus on Norwegian artists, spanning the past 4 centuries. Still, there is a room devoted to Munch, another set aside for Impressionists (mainly Renoir, Gaugin, Cezanne, Monet, and Van Gogh), along with a few works by Cubists Picasso and Braque. Most pieces in the Gallery are of the “I didn’t know” variety, worthy of cursory inspection, and little more. Still, there are a few stunning pieces, ones that make a viewer linger, even sit and study for minutes; engage in minute scrutiny and contemplation.

To enter is to invest a few hours and leave feeling the time was not fully wasted.


I generally take in at least one museum per peripateic tour. It's a personal rule. To help make me feel I am getting my money's worth. Or perhaps just so that I can point to something concrete that I did which has socially-sanctioned value. Who knows, maybe one day all this museum-going will transform me into someone cultured . . . well, one can always hope in life, can't they?

Yet ,when I go to museums -- whatever their quality and wherever they may be -- I notice that they don't always render me cultured as much as they tend to turn me into a philosophe. Well, of sorts. As in quizzical and confused. Full of questions to which I have no answers.

Possibly because they are temples of a certain kind of worship; mystical chambers that prompt mysterious queries. It could be that; or else it is something less complicated (though no less fathomable). Perhaps the intellectual excursion is because I can’t completely comprehend what it is I have just done; leading me to wonder why.

Why have I gone and committed this act of artistic experience? Why have I willingly exposed myself to various forms of communication from unknown others?

Such questions lead, naturally, to more questions; ones more extensive and far-reaching than puny me and my modest world can possibly bear. Questions such as: what is the purpose of art? Is there something beyond communication? What explains its attraction? And why am I -- and many others (who are not necessarily at all like me) -- so compelled to consume and experience it?

Such questions have answers -- although possibly not perfectly easy ones.


In moving beyond discussion of the specific pieces or those who create them and how, we enter the domain of general inquiry. “What is art?” we might ask, or “why does it exist?” Not only philosophical, these are historical and classificatory questions; so, too, are they psychological and sociological. Certainly, economic and political discussions lurk alongside the emotional. But there are other kinds of questions that can be asked (and oft-times are) -- both general and specific. Queries like: “what does art communicate?” or variations like: “why does art mean?”, “when does art mean?” or “how does it mean?”


I am no critic – well, allow me to rephrase that: I am surely critical, with a two-cents view of just about everything seeping through the crevasses, burbling into plain view; and I certainly have some opinion as to what that object is trying to say and why it may or may not have succeeded in saying it; but I often lack information or insight into how I might better read or appreciate that which it is trying to say. There we spy a rendering of prostitutes getting a medical check ; here, a guy rowing a boat; behind us a couple of men deep into a game of chess. But there is obviously more than those surface simplicities at work.

Within the products are people’s thoughts and insights: the creator’s urges and intimations, their patron’s aims and intentions, and their audience’s presumptions and beliefs. So there is more within the frame than a perfunctory “do you like it?”; something deeper within the invitation to stand before a piece and behold. I am being asked to regard something more than a simple construction of lines on canvas, of pigment and shadow in juxtaposition.

Will I “get it”? The true meaning? Well . . . me? The original walking question mark? Maybe, likely not. Regrettably, some of this – the problem of “what a piece of art means” – is a matter of intellect; more comfortingly, the rest of it is education. The latter deficiency anyone can solve; the former? Well, if that is what we hinge the exercise on, then -- running smack into our limitations -- we may find that art and the artist trump us (whether they intend to or not).

“How art means”, though, this has less to do with intellectual deficits. It simply has to do with recognition which -- for the most part -- is a problem of pedagogy; a matter implicating better education. The reason why art means something lies in a process – both personal and collective. It is about more than the artist concretizing aspects of his or her self; it is about the declaration of his or her articulation with a context. And that is where education can help us, because that context can be identified and explained. It includes all that surrounds the artist – physically, temporally, intellectually, morally. Thus, paintings of heaven and angels, or portraits of royalty, or depictions of workers being industrious – these are all reflections of the world enveloping the creator . . . and his or her audience. What is missing – that which we viewers cannot see – tells us as much about the painter’s world and his or her era, as that which is there. And, by the same token, what is there (or not) – in the painting or in the immediate experience of the audience now regarding the painting -- tells us as much about epochs as it does about any individual creative vision.


This message is conveyed to we art-viewers not only through any one individual piece, but (if we are trooping through a museum, say) through the aggregation of pieces. To bring it back to one of the questions I asked near the outset: what any one artistic creation means often is determined by what other pieces it stands in relation to. Any one meaning cannot be separated from the meanings created by the other pieces in close proximity. It is no different than a well-made CD or an exceptionally played basketball game. All the parts must mesh to deliver a worthy result.

If we enter a room where the only piece of value is a portrait of a Norwegian hunting party in the late 17th century and all the other pieces are mere trifles from bygone eras in which bejeweled gentry in furs stuff their jowls with poultry loins and strings of grapes, then we become aware that we are in the midst of a forgettable moment: either due to the poverty of the collection or, possibly, the era. In either case, and whatever the actual situation (the inherent “truth”?) the experience works on us, tha audience; it challenges and prods us; it sets us hard at work, making meaning. Making sense of art (with whatever knowledge or intellect we bring to it) means we are attributing, extrapolating, generalizing and concluding. Above all, though, asking not just "what does art mean?" but rather: "when does art mean?"

The same is true when we enter a room and run smack into stuff we haven’t seen before. If what is on the walls is that stuff just above -- the angular, aggressive, even harsh strokes, for instance, of the early twentieth century industrial age, we are asked to take it on. For me, the thought comes: "hey! wasn't this the epoch literature dubbed 'the jazz age'? Yet, judging from these paintings, wouldn't 'the bureaucratic moment' have been a better tag?" These offerings being more administrative and technical than human and heartfelt.


Perhaps anyone can intuit the unique in the presence of difference, of anomaly, of departure. Less easily apprehendable is what something means in the case of lacks: of gaps, omissions, or flawed aggregation. For this we may depend on specialists and guidebooks to hip us into deeper awareness. When such explanations go missing -- just like with other aspects of our lives -- we are mainly on our own. Fortunately, the signification of the boy with a violin may lie within a novice’s realm of competence; so, too, due to the relative absence (either in this particular artistic shrine or else in individual memory), the significance of two nudes standing side by side, though, oddly segmented. It may not take a connoiseur to appreciate that this differs from the norm. Why two? If one represents "woman" as some universal embodiment, does two imply "women" as some larger, more complex, nuanced whole? Numbers offering shading, variation, gradation? Or else -- hey, what is it with their poses? Is there in there positioning a suggestion of “sittings” conducted in separate spaces, at different times? Even, possibly, the same model offering us physical, temporal. or emotional perspective?

Similarly, despite being an artistic naïf – a lay-person, a casual gallery-goer – I nonetheless understand that the art of the Dutch (and, it turns out, Norwegian) painters of the later 17th and early 18th century was less about scene or theme, it was more about the play of light. Thus, to me, the woman in the gypsy dress stands out less for the defiant pose she strikes than for the shock of sunlight that verily explodes off the left side of her face.

From this I infer that what a painting means is less significant than how a painting means. In the case of these Dutch and Norwegian painters featured at the National Gallery, this how lay in an approach to hue; and also in the fact (as the companion pieces amassed in the same space testify) that a slew of similarly described artists approached communication in the same, invariant way.


Whether any of this is important I cannot say. I do know, however, that when I look at art, I have to remind myself that I am regarding something more than a single piece by a single artist; I am in the presence of a time, a mode of consciousness, a style of execution that, though invisible, is present. More than that, it is often determinative.

It is the “why” that lies behind the query “how . . ." -- or better -- "when does art mean?”


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