The Meaning of Art

27 01 2009
Artistic rendering of a forgotten tree

Artistic rendering of a forgotten tree

A man or woman strolls quietly through an art museum.  Here, we may find an old relic, painted many years ago by an artist long since deceased.  There, might be a recent work, a modern, scarcely more than blotches of paint on a canvass.  The observer stands and views a painting.  It might be rife with hidden meaning.  For other works, the meaning might be a subtle impression, a feeling, or just the overt idea of the image itself.

She pauses at a painting of a tree.  He stops and looks over her shoulder.  They speculate about its deeper meaning.  She says that the bright spots of color indicate a feeling of happiness.  He sees the dark clouds overhead and insists that it portrays impending doom.  She notices that the tree appears to be glowing, like an angel.  He notices that the tree is dead.  Which is it?  Is it a picture of happiness and hope, or is it a picture of gloom and despair?  She says that the meaning of the painting is in the eye of the beholder, but he says that the meaning comes only from the painter.  In reply, she says that one may never know what the painter intended, so it doesn’t really matter what that was.  He answers that he knows exactly what the painter intended, because the painter was his father.

In reality, art is no different than printed text.  Whoever said that a picture is worth a thousand words hit the nail on the head.  With a simple picture, I can demonstrate a concept, a setting, a feeling, and a sense of movement.  The purpose of art is communication.  The difference between a painting and a mess, is that the painting conveys a meaning.  Like any other form of communication, art can be misunderstood.  I paint a dead tree on a rugged hillside, with clouds heavy overhead.  If you look at it and see a utility pole in a trash pile, then you have misunderstood me.  If I ask you what the weather is like, and you reply, “Russian vodka,” then you have not understood me.  This paragraph has meaning.  That picture has meaning.  Meaning can always be misunderstood, and the receiver is not the one who gives the medium its meaning.  Art can hang on a wall and communicate its message to many people, a few people, one person, or no one.  It can convey its message successfully or unsuccessfully, to a specific person or to no one in particular.  Similarly, this blog post sits on the Internet, to be seen by any number of people, to be understood or not, by no one in particular.  It is even possible that no one will read it.  Nevertheless, this writing contains inherent meaning, given to it by its writer.  The painting of a tree also contains inherent meaning, given to it by its painter.

If nothing else, the meaning is the idea of the tree, itself.  Let’s just say, though, that this picture is not a painting, but a photograph.  The observers glance at it, noting the skill of the photography, but they are not likely to look for a deeper meaning.  They just see a tree.  It may be a marvelous picture of a tree; don’t get me wrong, but they do not see beyond that.  They leave the museum, and they exit out the front entrance past a row of trees lining the sidewalk, and they scarcely notice the real trees.  They take the real ones for granted.  It’s a phenomenon so universal that no one but an autistic savant can claim not to be guilty of it.  Everyone takes real life for granted.  Occasionally, a rare, appreciative soul might study a tree and admire its beauty.  The observer might even fall in love with it and paint a picture of it.  Consider, though, whether anyone looks at a real tree like an art critic looks at a painting and searches for the meaning behind the meaning?  We live in an era where a dying breed are the people who even believe in the artist of the real tree.  Artist?  What artist?  It’s just a tree, right?  The critic leaves the museum, walks past the unnoticed trees beside the sidewalk, only to go home and worry about the meaning of life over a can of cold beer.

What is the meaning of life?  Note, that “meaning,” and “purpose,” are two very different words.  If you answer the question with some suggestion as to what people ought to do, then you might have described the purpose of life, but you have not described its meaning.  Purpose is what a thing was meant to do. The purpose of a hammer is to bang things down.  The purpose of a knife is to cut.  The purpose of a blog post is to convey meaning.  The purpose of a painting is to convey meaning.  A thing can fail to achieve its purpose.  A knife might get broken while being used to pry something open.  A blog post might be misunderstood.  If life has meaning, then two things must be true:

1) At least one purpose in life is to convey the meaning of life.

2) The meaning of life is whatever the maker of life has intended.

Our world scarcely believes in a maker anymore.  Every good thing is a product of dumb luck, or so we’re told.  We’ve taken the art and called it a mess.  We’ve said so straight to the face of the artist.  Even so, at the end of the day we find ourselves staring at the mess and looking for, needing, meaning.  The valiant soul will even say that life has meaning, but often he will say that meaning is whatever you make it.  This is to say that the meaning of the art is in the eye of the beholder.  He sees a painting of a tree on a hillside and thinks he sees a utility pole on a trash heap.  He misses the point.  He strives for happiness, but he misses out on the real meaning of life.

The real tree is a marvelous thing.  It is a work of art that dwarfs the efforts of a simple human painter.  It is a piece of wood, yet it grows.  It lives.  That would be like a house growing a new bedroom on its own.  For the house it is pure magic, but for the tree it is just an everyday occurrence.  We hardly notice when a tree grows, but if we came home to find that our house had reproduced more bedrooms we’d be astounded.  We are surrounded by a work of art in its highest form.

And we slap the artist in the face by attributing it to chance.

A rendering of a tree by a forgotten artist

A rendering of a tree by a forgotten artist