Taney asked me to address what I mean when I say that content is multivalent, complex, and expansive. Years ago, I taught an Intro to Art class in which I regaled students with taking a single artwork and re-framing it in multiple contexts and bringing forth multiple aspects and interpretations. After the first grading, a student wrote a letter to the dean of the school complaining that in my lecture I contradicted myself and that I didn’t supply the meaning to be given on the exam. In other classroom situations whenever I had Seurat’s La Grande Jatte on an exam, I could rest assured that almost every student would include that the monkey symbolized infidelity, because this was the one instance in which there was a singular reason for that figure being there. Those encountering the study of art want there to be a handy guidebook that lays out “if you see this, it means x.” The struggle becomes one of getting a student to see the picture as a painting — something made of materials involving choices that could be informed by training, tradition, temperate, and a host of other factors. So while everyday experience requires us to flatten meaning, engaging with a work of art involves an unfolding that can be never-ending (a dilation, as Roland Barthes would have it). While a work of art was born of a conceit at a specific moment in time, it contains more and expands as it becomes the sum total of all the ways it is received, which includes all the various ways in which someone may take content to mean.
Taney also asks about the somatosensory and unconscious cognitive experience. We may want to circle back. At a time when psychology turned to matters of perception and cognition, artists in the late nineteenth century began to explore ways in which works of art could bypass intellectual operations. Someone like Gauguin explored color in terms of the direct physical impact it had on the body. Associated with his association with Analytical Cubism, Cezanne was actually concerned with trying to portray the “small sensations” experienced before familiar landscapes in the south of, creating complex compositions to comingle what he saw, felt, and knew. One might say that Seurat tried to remove the artist from the picture by devised a system based on contemporary color theory in which a painting might be executed without actually seeing the color, and the units of paint were not expected to come together outside of the perceiving viewer. [Seurat was an anarchist, and the means by which he created his paintings aligned with its philosophy of the individual working in his/her own dignity with other individuals to create society.] Interestingly, each of these artists signaled that something new was going on through comparison to other artworks in similar categories or traditions. Herein it is the form that spoke of something new rather than subject, and it would continue that way for decades to come. The early 20th-century includes many artist groups who believed that it was through form that consciousness could be change to usher in a new utopian world.
So what happened? Maybe we should look to the sequence of “isms” that collided into each other, as the twentieth century progressed ending in minimalism that left only conceptualism. This was the sixties, and there certainly was a lot of touchy-feely art then, but you could just as well liberate yourself and create the aesthetic experience in your own mind. No one believed form could bring about a revolution anymore, and rather than a vocabulary that could be used to say something new, form could be put in quotation marks. These vocabularies were also co-opted by commercial design. Form still has power, i.e. the power to sell. Maybe even worse, form and the pursuit of new form became associated with the powers-that-be rather than something that could be transcendent. We earned that Abstract Expressionism was used by the US government to show Communist countries just how we valued the individual. Maybe the whole idea of a shared humanity or a shared human experience became suspect. Or maybe it just became too much of a thankless task to teach art students how form can have meaning.
This morning I happened to read a post by Maria Popova on her website Brainpickings: “Joseph Conrad on Writing and the Role of the Artist.” I wanted to include passages from Conrad here, but it was just too difficult to chose one that is relevant to our discussion.