A part of me wants to believe that modern art isn't supposed to have meaning, but that's clearly not true. While I certainly cannot penetrate into the hidden meanings of giant blue spots next to giant orange spots, or little red rectangles, or massive canvases painted in a single glossy shade of pink, obviously some people can to the extent that there is a massive modern art community, complete with critics, connoisseurs, and museums sufficient to fuel the careers of a good many artists. What do those people see, then, in the abstractions of abstract art? What dialogues do they have? What narrative is present? And if not narrative, what emotional content?
You see, much as I am a linguistic thinker, my problem ultimately is musical. In music - and especially in, for example, Beethoven - there is an undeniable narrative arc, simply because music takes place in time. Every listener, no matter how tone deaf and/or untrained hears the same fundamental thing in the same order. The same is true in a novel or a play.* The story, whether literary or musical, unfolds in a certain way, as determined by the artist.
* Granted, in both music and literature it is possible to get things out of order, but that is not the intent of the composer/writer, usually. Exceptions like Joyce's Finnegan's Wake - which is just as confusing no matter where one begins or ends - only further support the rule: there is a strong temporal, narrative sense in literature.
In a painting, on the other hand, the experience of the viewer is much more haphazard. While we have certain tendencies (left to right, top to bottom), any given painting might strike us differently. Where you might be attracted to the white splotches, I'm drawn to the blue "stars," for example. While the black spindly branches might strike you as the key to the painting, I might not even regard them as important on first glance.
Being out of time, paintings allow the viewer to revise their initial impressions, of course, but that doesn't change that we remain subtly and heavily influenced by that first brush with the work. Add in the propensity for art museums to contextualize art with neighboring pieces, with biographical information, or with descriptions of the work in question, and the process of constructing a personal narrative gets very muddled.
Which is not to say that doesn't happen in other media. Indeed, it happens very much, and such shaping of the narrative is exactly the point of, for example, the Beethoven project that I've undertaken in this space. What differs, then, is where that narrative comes from, and thus what "understanding" a piece of visual art even means. Whereas the Eroica Symphony, in my opinion anyway, speaks for itself once you know enough about music theory and a little about history, I'm not necessarily convinced that the same is true in visual arts.
That's not totally fair. I think that, if I knew more about composition and technique and so on, that works like the one that we are, slowly, coming to would speak to me much more directly. I suspect, however, that a lot of what they would say would be "this is the style used here, this is the technique, this is the skill," and not "this is the meaning." Again, this is my bias as a musician, but I feel as though music theory is a way to unlock, yes, compositional techniques, but more importantly, emotional, spiritual, and even political meaning in music. Is the same true in visual arts, especially the more abstract works of modernity?* I don't know, but I struggle with the possibility that either answer to that question might be true.
* To be fair, again, we might ask the same question of music, where modern composition has been divided into music for the movies (and TV and commercials and so on) and music that is extremely strange and abstracted. Maybe the question I'm asking here isn't about art at all, but about modernity (or, I suppose, "post-modernity"). Hmm...
Without further ado - since we've adone enough already - here's the particular painting I want to share and discuss, briefly. Briefly because I'll struggle to know what to say, for all of the reasons highlighted above. Nevertheless, I want to share the work because, of all of the many hundreds of pieces of art I say during my recent visit to the bay area, this was the one particular piece that most caught my eye. Why? Well, that's the question I want to try to answer. Here it is:
|"Clearing" by Darren Waterston. Displayed at Cantor Art Museum, Stanford, CA.|
I particularly like the sky analogy here because of the figure that looks like a nebula. While we, perhaps, don't see those massive gas clouds when we look at the night sky, they are there, and this painting in that sense reminds me that, while behind the trees there are stars, behind the stars there are still more things that I do not perceive. The clearing is, in that sense, only a partial one.
Of course, we still see the branches on either side of the clearing, which further remind us that our view of the space between is constrained. Consider the second nebula behind the largest of the branches, and you'll see that, though it is just as large, just as complex, and perhaps even more aesthetically pleasing than the more fully visible one, it is also muddled and unimportant thanks to its backgrounding. Only looking closer do you see that, actually, it is prominent in the narrative of the painting principally because it is partially obscured.
What strikes me most, however, about the painting is the ambiguity of meaning in the symbols. This work is somewhere in between abstract and representational. The branches are only just barely reminiscent, the stars not quite the right color, the nebulae a bit too much like water stains. The random white, blue, and black spots that occupy other spaces in the work may suggest - in the case of the largest one in particular - a not-quite-right moon or other satellites, but they could also be the splotches that occur in a camera when looking near, but not at the sun.
Then again, the painting is too dark to be daytime, but too light to be nighttime. Dawn or twilight perhaps makes sense, especially with the reddish "cloud" that hands across the top of the painting, but placing the piece temporally almost seems unfair.
It also is unfair to leave the ambiguous symbols with only one interpretation. The branches could also be briars, I suppose, but are also not unlike the tendrils of a neuron. Nebula, amoeba, water stain... Why not a ginger root? And so on. At a certain point, the representational value starts to break down, and while there are hints and suggestions here, there is clearly no single interpretation that does the painting justice.
Perhaps this is too obvious a point to make, but I'm going to make it anyway: if Waterston wanted to paint a clearing in a forest, with the night sky shining above, I'm sure he could have. Perhaps, in our sophisticated artistic age, we take for granted that we're not supposed to paint that way (we're not supposed to write music in the romantic style or Petrarchan Sonnets), but that doesn't answer the question at the heart of this post. What is it that work like this is trying to capture? Is ambiguity, as such, really the point? How many works can be about mystery and absence or nebulous meaning before it gets old? Doesn't art about art have a limit?
In short, the question is "so what?"
And yet maybe that question misses the point, and therefore answers itself. For some reason this painting spoke to me, not in words, music, emotions, or any other structure that I can access linguistically. Maybe I'm missing the words, but maybe there simply aren't any, and the "meaning" of art is a nonsensical thing to look for, an artifice we construct because we so much predicate the linguistic. Understanding isn't what one does with a painting because "understanding" is a word, and words need not apply. Of course, paintings are (usually) still titled and described, but is that maybe because we're afraid to acknowledge that they might have something profoundly powerful about them that we can't access?
As I've said, I don't know the answers to these questions. In many ways, writing about art is almost as pointless as writing about language. If you try hard enough, you're either reduced to talking about structure and technique or you start traveling in logical circles. In some ways, I think, art drives you there even quicker, because it is so much more urgent than language, so much more removed from our mundane day-to-day experiences. Looking at a piece like "Clearing," then may not tell me anything, but it certainly disrupts something, and I don't know what. Maybe that's all that "meaning" means?