There has been much debate lately in the advanced painting class I teach at the Art Center, Highland Park, over whether or not an artist should explain “what she meant” when she created a work of art. Stephanie looked at Susan’s series of paintings and asked her, “What were you thinking about? What does this mean to you?” Susan replied, “It doesn’t matter what it means to me, what matters is what it means to you, to the viewer.” Stephanie made the case that it is interesting to know what the artist’s intention or story is.
I weighed in to say that, as the creator of a work, I don’t feel that my version of what it “means” is any more significant than anyone else’s. In fact, once I finish a painting, what it means for me usually changes. I’ve been painting long enough to have people show me works they bought from me decades ago, and not only do I not remember what I was thinking when I made it, occasionally I don’t exactly remember the piece! (This is a rather disorienting feeling, since I remember selling it to them, and I can easily recognize my style, as familiar as looking at the shape of my own fingers.)
Serena Kovalosky, in her blog “365 Days Of Everything I Love About Being An Artist,” addressed the idea of interpreting art by saying: “I’m not particularly attached to my translation of a piece and I find it fascinating to learn how my work affects others. I’ll offer my version, discuss my influences as I was creating it, and I’ll gladly share the technicals. But what people will remember most is how my work made them feel.”
I go a little further than Serena. Not only do I enjoy hearing what other people bring to my work, I have found that sharing my version seems to quash their creative response. Once they hear my “version,” they no longer feel theirs is valid. I always hope that the engaged viewer actually has a creative experience when reacting to art, whether it’s visual, music or literary.
The great literary critic William Gass explores the notion of the “self” in art in his new book, Life Sentences. As discussed by reviewer Adam Kirsch in the New York Times, Gass says: “‘What works of art testify to is the presence in this world of consciousness, consciousness of many extraordinary kinds,’ he writes… But this is ‘not that of the artists themselves, for theirs are often much the same as any other person’s… It is not the writer’s awareness I am speaking of but the awareness he or she makes. For that is what fine writing does: it creates a unique verbal consciousness.’”
This is a fascinating idea: that art creates a unique consciousness in the viewer’s experience of it. This goes beyond what I tell my students, that the art should always “speak for itself.” What do you think: do you prefer to know the artist’s story behind his/her work, or would you rather experience it without explanation?