Too often there is an expectation that a piece of art can be “explained,” that its meaning must be expressible with words. There is a sense that a piece of art is somehow invalid if the question “what does it mean?” can’t be easily answered. As one artist responded to the question: “If I had wanted to express it with words, I would have written it down.”
The most interesting art communicates something other than ideas per se. It communicates things which are much deeper and more innate to human consciousness than verbal structures. I don’t attempt to put words to what these things are, because I don’t think there are necessarily words for these things, to reduce them to words is to reduce their actual meaning, to sacrifice their meaning for the sake of having a manipulable symbol-system.
Art that is easily reduced to a coherent “message” is at best kitsch or commercial art and at worst propaganda (such as “social realism”). There need be no expectation of this sort of mundane messageering from fine art.
At the most basic level, a work of art can only actually communicate what it is, what the eye sees. (For convenience’s sake, I’m considering only art in the visual media, though all these thoughts apply to art of any kind.) These shapes, colours, forms, are then resolved within the viewer’s consciousness, where they set off a series of associations, sensations, memories etc. In some cases, these will mirror the artist’s consciousness in creating the piece, in some cases they won’t. A work of art can be considered successful if it has an effect on the viewer, regardless of whether it is the effect intended or, indeed, whether any particular effect is intended.
One part of this problem is in the persistence of the notion that communication (such as art) can be charted on a sort of Cartesian coordinate system where one axis is called “form” and one is called “content”. This is a parallel dichotomy to that of “form and function” where content is considered as the function of a communication. Following this erroneous model, the ease with which the content can be extracted from the form is a measure of how effective the communication is. In art, these two are inseparable. I make a tentative definition of “art” as “that medium of communication in which the content is at least partially comprised of the form.”
Why is it so appealing to think of visual/tactile/auditory art forms in verbal terms? There are a couple reasons I can think of. One is simply that it's easier for our minds to manipulate orderly groups of symbols, and hence we get the sense that we understand a piece of art by dealing with it verbally; this as opposed to trying to apprehend a complicated set of associations that we are perhaps only vaguely aware of on a conscious level.
The second reason is the desire for an artwork to represent a narrative. In this sense, a piece is seen to be some sort of exposition of the psyche of the artist; this desire emerges from the myth of The Artist as Special Person. The reality is that artists are distinguished from other people only in that they make art! It may be that in some cases, good art is made by people with interesting psyches, but the reason why their psyches are noticed in the first place is that their art is itself compelling! We should hardly expect them to neccesarily also be eloquent or even to neccesarily have any idea why their art works as well as it does! Anyone who's read interviews with Damien Hirst cannot escape the impression that, while he can be a brilliant artist, his thoughts on the subject (as expressed verbally) are largely confused. Art seems to be something we can, at best, talk around, and never really talk about.
I find the best art to be that which makes a powerful impression on me, without revealing its methods. If the mystery is successfully violated by analysis, the art loses its power. One can come to an “understanding” of art history, of technique, etc., but this knowledge seems to never bring one closer to understanding the experience of art itself.
etouffee: I'm not saying that art can't be talked about; anything can be talked about! I myself have been known to discuss art on many an occasion. My point is that it can't be translated into prose, that the question "what is the artist trying to say?" presupposes that the artist is in fact trying to say something, and they generally aren't, other than in the exceptions I mentioned above.
NinjaPenguin: Oh, I don't mean to exclude writing from the realm of art. Certainly not! But the problems interpreting writing are different from the problems interpreting visual or other art forms; that is, the impulse to deal with writing verbally is appropriate. What I'm attempting to address is the common attempt to reduce a painting or other non-verbal art piece to a coherent (verbal) "statement." As for graffiti, calligraphy, etc., my above argument does not conflict with these as art forms; their artistry is not in their verbal-ness but in their visual form. Can visual form intersect verbal meaning in a piece of art? Yes! Concrete poetry is a great example of this. I'm not trying to reduce the meaning of the term "art," rather I'm arguing that verbal analysis isn't useful in the experience of that communication which takes non-verbal form...