The Act of Making Meaning

Visual analysis begins by thinking about how a works means. The formal elements of line, color and shape get their meaning from association rather than definition.  So, the meanings of visual language are more like how poetic language uses words than the language of prose.  Both poetry and visual images depend on the sensible properties of the work which shape our experiences.  The use of metaphor grounded in common experiences rather than description is present in all the arts.

The artist begins the process by making choices about media and subject matter.  Those choices reflect his/her intention/purpose in making the work.  In the creative process, the artist develops those choices by responding to the experiential feedback from work in progress.  The question at this stage is What do I do next? If the creator can answer this question, the creative process is working.   If not, the process shuts down until it can be answered. Sometimes this shutdown simply means that the work is complete.  But this shutdown can also occur if the internal critic interferes with the creator’s trust in the process itself.  That is why the ‘voice’ of critic should be ignored or suppressed until the work nears completion.

Once the work seems to be finished, the next question becomes What have I done? This question represents the final stage of the creative process. At this point, the creator shifts roles to become the first viewer of the work.  That requires stepping out of the creator role and summoning the critic’s help in determining if the work has achieved enough coherence to shape the experience of a viewer.  I use the process of titling the work as way to signal this stage.  Giving an art work a title means I own it in a way that represents my judgment that the work embodies my experience in a way that communicates meaning.

Like the process of creating the work, interpretation starts with making associations derived from the visual language of the work.  The process of interpretation which creates meaning follows a similar path from experience through knowledge to understanding the work’s meaning/message. Meaning is context dependent. But unlike words which rely on knowledge contexts, visual images use experiential associations to communicate meaning.  The visual language itself is represented by the question What do I see?  The answer to this question can be a response based on common human experience for example, the color ‘red’ used to symbolize blood or a smiley face icon.  Sometimes the answer is grounded a specific context such as community’s way of life.  If the viewer shares a common context of knowledge or experience with the artist, they will be able to ‘get’ it without too much trouble.  However, if the work comes from an unfamiliar context such as a different culture or time-period, the process of association breaks down.  That is why interpreting works of art from a context with which the interpreter is not familiar requires knowledge beyond the common associations of the viewer’s own cultural, social or historical context.

So, the answer to the final question What do I think this experience means? requires a definitive test to determine what information is relevant to the work’s meaning. The test that works best uses the touchstone of experience with rather than knowledge about the work. Facts about the work are not enough to understand its meaning.

The test for relevance involves how much the information changes the interpreter’s experience and thus changes the work’s meaning.  Like the way in which an artist ‘owns’ the work by giving it a title, the interpreter tests his/her understanding of the work through experience.  That is why I argue that artists are the only true empiricists because the final evaluation of their work must meet the test of the interpreter’s experience.  That is the only way to understand art as embodied experience.

Thus, unlike science which demands consistent experimental results, the arts are based on personal point of view.  This means that no two interpretations of a work will ever be the same because no two experiences of the work can ever be the same.  Even multiple encounters with a work by the same person will produce different—although related—interpretations. But, all these diverse meanings are connected through the objective qualities of the work.   As a result, differences in interpretation do not that restrict the meaning by dividing it into each interpreter’s subjective opinion but connect each interpretation.  In this way, the work not only links the creator with the interpreter but connects all interpreters who have made the effort to engage with and understand the work.

The image is a mind map of the complex relationship between creator and interpreter that produces meaning.  The work reflects the choices and experiences of the artist who created it.  This embodied experience functions as both feedback and limit to the experiences of the interpreter.  Thus, the work acts as an objective ground for the connection between the subjective experiences of creator and interpreter.

Creating meaning

The Act of Making Meaning

Language of Art: Visual Vocabulary

Kandinsky Comp 8

I want to begin by thinking about how the formal elements of line, shape and color function as basic visual vocabulary, so I have decided to take the elements ‘for a walk’ to use Klee’s metaphor for the process of making a drawing. This story illustrates how line, shape and color function as visual vocabulary.   Drawings are blank surfaces which form spaces articulated by marks which can remain lines or become shapes. All shapes have color and are constructed with a line that represents the edge of the shape. So, you can’t have shape or line without color; color without shape—even lines have shape.

I start with a blank sheet of paper.  That is the space in which my drawing will develop.  This paper can be rectangular, circular, irregular.  It can be used in portrait or landscape orientation.

Now I must choose the medium for the drawing.  Choice of media is a significant choice because the medium affects the appearance of the line, color etc.  Charcoal lines have a different visual quality than line drawn with a ball point pen or a pencil.  Colored pencils are different from watercolor paints.  Geometric shapes have a different meaning than detailed renderings of the shape of the human eye or ear.

I decide to use pencils.  These are easy to use and have more expressive range than ball point pens or markers.

I am now confronted with a blank space that I need to fill with meaningful marks.

I make a dot with a red pencil in the center of the space.  I make another series of blue dots in circle around the first dot. I draw yellow lines from the red do to each of the blue dots.  I decide to use more colors for this drawing.  In the right corner, I draw a blue rectangle and color it in.  I add some black lines connecting it to the edge of the paper.  I continue adding more colored shapes and lines until I decide to stop.

If I keep on adding more shapes and lines in different colors I will eventually have an abstract drawing.  It probably won’t be as skillfully constructed as the example by Kandinsky but my drawing will use the same visual vocabulary or line, shape and color that he used.  So, the meaning is not in the formal elements alone but in how they are related.  Kandinsky developed a whole theory of the symbolic use of color, shape and line but like all abstract work, the meaning begins in the association with my experience rather than trying to match his definitions.  I would title Kandinsky’s work Music for an Eclipse based on the black circle and the multiple lines that look like music notation.


Language of Art: Visual Vocabulary

Art as Embodied Experience

Weir Abstract Trees

When I go to museums or art exhibits, I usually avoid reading the artist’s title until I have given the work my own version. I call this game  ‘What would I title this work?’ and it is a way of capturing my experience rather than relying on words to tell me what I am seeing.   I want to see how close my experience comes to what the artist thought they were doing This practice helps me to really look at the work without preconceptions based on expectations based on the label.  I started playing this game when I realized that I tended to read the label before engaging with the work. That means that the words on the label are more important than the work which is just WRONG!  So, my solution was to give the works my own title before checking the words that have the power to shape my experience and thus limit the potential meaning of the work.  Once the work is completed, the artist becomes the first viewer—albeit a viewer with inside knowledge.  However, as an artist, I know that I don’t always understand my own work fully.  I don’t always know what I intended until I think about the choices I made to create the image.

The issue of intention of brings me to another point.  UNTITLED works really, really irritate me.  Even an enigmatic title like Weir’s And Little Ones all in a Row is better than UNTITLED.  At least I have a starting point for trying to feel my way into the experience expressed by the work.   I feel as if they are being coy about letting the viewer decide what the work means and that is frustrating. Artists should ‘man’ (or woman) up and give me a clue about their point of view.  What did the artist think he/she was communicating?    Art works can’t mean anything the viewer wants them to mean.

The language of art embodies experience so at the beginning of learning to interpret experiential language, recognizable subject matter which appeals to knowledge can be a distraction.  Abstract art depends primarily on experience of the arrangements of line, color and shape.  In that sense, it is like instrumental music.  This means that these works offer the clearest examples of how artists express their experience using visual language.  In other words, abstract works forces the viewer to learn to directly engage with the experience of visual language itself.  In the process, it teaches the interpreter to make the shift from left brain to right brain thinking.  Since the right brain process visual images, it is the primary mode for engaging with embodied experience.  By making the shift from left brain (words) to right brain (images) the interpreter can also shift from identifying meaning based on knowledge to associations based on experience.  Basing the meaning of a work on experience shaped by knowledge is the key to interpreting visual language.



Art as Embodied Experience

Why study art?

Expose yoursel to art

I believe that art is how we learn to be human. Before there was scientific thought, the arts—stories, music, images, dance, poetry, theater—helped us make meaning from our experience.  The process of understanding and learning from those experiences has always been critically important. The intimate relationship between knowledge and experience which is embodied in works of art allows us to communicate our experience to others. This dynamic relationship lies at the heart of the process of visual analysis itself.

In our image-saturated media culture becoming visual literate is as much a life skill as learning to read. I teach a college course called The Art of Visual Literacy.  This course is project based which means that the assignments focus on process not product, experiential learning rather than assimilation of knowledge. I think of it as a hybrid of critical thinking and a studio art course. The primary course text is a workbook not a text book.

Art works are not about subject matter.  Instead they express the experiences and point of view of their creator.  Unlike words which require knowledge to understand their meaning, Visual images communicate meaning through experience and experience is PERSONAL.  We don’t have to speak Italian to understand the Mona Lisa.    One consequence of the subjective nature of visual language is that your understanding of an art work says as much about you as it does about the work.

This grounding in experience contains both bad news and good news.  The bad news is captured in the teaching story The Blind Men and the Elephant which highlights some of the challenges of making meaning from experience.  In the story, the blind men each experience a different part of the elephant.  But a problem arises when they each assume that their experience represents the whole elephant.  By limiting their understanding to their own personal point of view, they missed the bigger picture—the whole elephant.  The point of this story is that experience alone is not enough for understanding meaning.  To really understand the elephant, they needed to combine their experiences to produce knowledge in the process, they move beyond the subject into the objectivity that is crucial for the communication of meaning.  Each interpretation must be refined by knowledge gained from the interpretations of others.

The good news is that engaging with the arts has the power to teach us about ourselves.  By making meaning, we create a connection to our own lives. Art can entertain, irritate, bore, titillate, encourage, instruct, disturb and fascinate.  So, by making the effort to engage with works of art, you will discover what art can teach you about how other people see the world.

Why study art?

Bread and Circuses

In ancient Rome, the Roman elite used free food and blood sport entertainment by gladiators in the arena to keep the poor and disadvantaged under control.   I think much of modern political policy is designed to do the same job with the complicity of the media.


After the ugly campaign followed by the election of a candidate who managed to insult every possible group in our diverse society, I decided that I had had enough of the wasteland that is TV programming.  So I disconnected the dish and vowed to abstain from paying attention to the news anywhere else for the foreseeable future.

What a relief!

No more channel surfing trying to find something that didn’t insult my intelligence.  No more talking heads blathering about possible events or decisions by our president elect.  No more commercials telling me that I need to buy their products to live the good life.  No more situation comedies that aren’t funny.  No more ‘junk food’ documentaries about the existence of big foot/mermaids/lost treasure/ghosts on the history channel. No more violent ‘news’ images of wars, crimes, fires and floods which happen to have been recorded on video for us to watch.

I’ll admit that I still reach for the TV remote until I remember that it no longer works.  But the absence of TV programming simply means I can do other things besides dulling my mind and spirit with the messages of media circus each day. I can watch my favorite Ancient Aliens on the computer through or watch my guilty pleasure AFV on my smart phone.  I have time to watch my library of animated films or see new ones on Netflix. I can read a book, play in my art studio, take a walk, chat with friends.

Perhaps we all ought to take a time out from the message saturated media and reflect on what the true American values are.  If we spend more time living our lives in line with our values and less time trying to fit in with an obviously dysfunctional image of what our lives are supposed to be, we might all become saner, happier people.


Bread and Circuses

Meet the Art Gang Sidekicks

The Art Conservator

ag-sidekicks-conservatorThis art gang ‘sidekick’ primarily assists the Collector and Art Curator by helping them preserve the objects that form the basis for their collections.

Why do art works need the attentions of a conservator?

Many art works are embodied in material objects.  These objects seem like they are more permanent than living things but the fact is objects decay just as human do.  Textiles unravel. Paintings get dirty or they crack and peel. Paint reacts chemically with bad results. Inks fade. Paper disintegrates. Stone crumbles and metal corrodes. The job of the art conservator like is to halt the decay and restore those objects to preserve them for future generations.

This process can be tricky.  In the past, conservators have used techniques that did more harm than good.  Some people have speculated that the Mona Lisa is missing her eyebrows due to an overzealous cleaning or a chemical reaction in the paint that caused them to fade.


The Exhibit Designer

ag-sidekicks-exhibit-designerThis art gang ‘sidekick’ primarily assists the Art Curator by providing professional design and construction of the exhibit spaces.  Curators are often art historians as well and while their knowledge of art helps them select the theme and work for the exhibit, they often do not have the expertise to design the exhibit space itself.  As a result, the Curator and the Exhibit Designer must work closely together to realize the Curator’s vision for the exhibit.  This means that mounting an exhibit is a collaborative endeavor.

Good exhibit design should not draw attention to itself but focus attention on the works. Exhibit design involves creating a clear flow through the display which helps the viewer to make connections between the works.  These connections are what drives the overall message of the exhibit.  The lighting is also a crucial element of exhibit design since straining to see the works in a dimly lit space or being blinded by bright lights can be a distraction.

The placement and format of contextual information about the works must also be considered part of the exhibit designer’s job.  Some exhibits can include interactive elements.  One of my favorite examples of this was an exhibit in the International Folk Art museum on works made from recycled materials.  Part of the exhibit included a work space filler with junk where museum goers could make their own souvenir treasure to take with them.


Meet the Art Gang Sidekicks

Art Gang: Meet the Art Curator

The privilege I’ve had as a curator is not just the discovery of new works… but what I’ve discovered about myself and what I can offer in the space of an exhibition – to talk about beauty, to talk about power, to talk about ourselves, and to talk and speak to each other.                                                                        Thelma Golden


Works of art are not experienced in a vacuum. Many times they are encountered in a museum or gallery exhibit.  In either case, the exhibit space embodies the relationship between experience—how the works are displayed—and knowledge—the labels and exhibit catalog that is the key to visual analysis.  When art works are together in the same physical (or conceptual) space, their juxtaposition can reveal new insights into each work.

The Curator’s role involves the selection of the theme and works that become the exhibit itself.  This means that putting together an art exhibit is a creative act because the exhibit itself is a constructed space that activates the possible meanings in the collection of works itself.

Like art critics, art curators are usually trained as art historians because they need the knowledge about art works to make the judgments that lie at the heart of their job as important guardians of culture. They are responsible for deciding what works should be preserved for the future. They decide what to keep and what to discard, what works to exhibit and what works to keep in storage.  The art curator’s decisions carry a great deal of weight not only for the public but also for the artists as well. Having a one person show at a major museum is a sure way to increase the commodity value of the artist’s work.

Unlike art collectors, curators are concerned with the wider culture although personal interests do play a role in what kind of art is their specialty.

To appreciate this member of the art gang, I suggest that you create a virtual exhibit using material from the Internet.  This exercise will help you understand how the collector and the curator are two sides of the same impulse—one public and the other private.

Art Gang: Meet the Art Curator