If art has no fixed meaning, then the audience can sometimes lost

Christopher P Jones
Oct 7 · 5 min read
Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash

When we walk around art galleries, we see works of art: paintings hanging on the walls and sculptures arranged across the space. Sometimes installations and performances too. The first questions are usually the same: What does it mean? What are these things trying to tell us? What is the purpose here?

It’s not naive to ask these questions; it’s the basic premise of active engagement.

As visitors to art galleries we are often encouraged to adopt a modern orthodoxy: that a work of art may be interpreted in a myriad of ways, that the viewer somehow “completes” the work through open-ended engagement and subjective association. In this way, the idea that a work of art has a single meaning conferred by the artist — there to be deciphered like a riddle — is thought of as a kind of elitist tyranny, a prohibitive limit on the ways in which works might be experienced. The claim that the artist is the first and last arbiter of the artwork is thought to be false.

It is an attractive idea, not least because it seems to open up art appreciation to the range of subjective perspectives that individuals can bring. Meaning in art accrues around personal responses, connections and reflections. The gallery space becomes a dynamic arena, where meaning unfolds as different visitors enter and offer their responses.

Yet, this position also leaves works of art open to having no firm meaning at all: for if they are open to any interpretation, no particular meaning can ever be said to be true.

Many historical threads have led to this position, but there is probably no more eloquent and influential exposition than the 1967 essay The Death of the Author by the French literary critic Roland Barthes. Whilst Barthes was writing primarily about literature, his influence over the field of art has been equally strong.

In the essay, Barthes warns against the dangers of taking the artist’s life as the definitive connotation of the work. Explaining that a work of art is a “space of many dimensions”, he writes, “The unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination.” In other words, it is the reader (or viewer) who makes final sense of the work.

Modern art galleries (as well as the artists whose work they show) have largely digested this point of view; indeed, much of contemporary art continues the same interrogation that Barthes contributed to, questioning the lingering assumptions about artistic agency and merit. Where does an artwork begin and end? Who is the creator of it? Who is to say where true value lies?

Many artists and art institutions are interested in this wider discussion. Under the influence of feminism, post-colonial studies and identity politics, a work of art treated by contemporary practitioners as an object that has come into existence by virtue of a whole series of contingencies. The point is to show a more nuanced understanding of how art is made and received, an awareness that nothing happens in isolation: there are societal forces of education, privilege and prejudice, as well as the marketplace, the availability of materials, the trends of art, and so on.

In this way, it is naive to think that art is simply made and then shown. Galleries themselves are a riptide of curatorial activity, where work is commissioned, selected, arranged and promoted — always to the benefit of some arts and to the detriment of others.

The dominant approach of art galleries over the past few decades has been in response to this situation, to reveal a degree of self-awareness: to express a desire to counter to effects of bias and privilege, to be seen to expose the power of the gallery and to somehow hand that power over: to not keep it to themselves but to reveal it and share it.

One way of addressing this is to mount exhibitions that have a clear curatorial basis: for instance, an established artist might be invited to curate an inventive re-hang of existing works. In this mode, galleries have discovered a less problematic way of displaying the art at their disposal. To exposes the methods of the exhibition — to give it a more democratic basis, or if not democratic then explicitly idiosyncratic — is to relinquish power over it. Hence, curatorial interventions are now made openly and with fanfare.

Another solution to the problem is to explicitly hand over the role of meaning-maker to the public. Thus, the recording and displaying of audience responses are now commonplace in art galleries, such as at the UK’s Turner Prize, which invites visitors to write out their responses and pin them to the wall.

I was particularly struck by an exhibition at the Tate Britain gallery not long ago that pursued at different mode of audience participation. The audio guide to the Sensorium exhibition explained the concept:

“Here you’ll find four artworks from the Tate Collection, as well as sensory stimuli, things to hear, smell, touch and eat. In each room we want you to focus on the painting and let your senses do the rest. Maybe the sensory stimuli will inspire thoughts or memories. Maybe they’ll suggest details in the paintings, or bring out shape or colour. Each of them has been made in response to the artworks, thinking about what they depict, and how and when they were made. We want you to find you own interpretation of each artwork, and we hope these stimuli will help.”

There is, it seems to me, an awkward contortion going on here. The gallery is looking for new ways to explore its collection, yet nervous of asserting too much about the meaning and value of their artworks, they instead arrange an “experience”.

Yet, paradoxically, the movement towards open-endedness can have the opposite effect, that of stirring more questions and further confusion from the audience. Go into any contemporary art gallery today and you can almost feel the distraction etched into the peering faces: “But how am I supposed to react to this work? What am I supposed to see?” Visitors look around for the gallery wall text, or for the exhibition catalogue, anything to lend a hand to this confusing set of circumstances.

Undoubtedly, art benefits from being open and non-elitist. But this position becomes counterproductive when the audience is left so free to interpret as to feel lost. After all, art is an activity with a long history and a complex set of evolving traditions. In this sense, contextual understanding is an invaluable guide to a work’s meaning.

Nothing should stand in the way of the transcendent possibilities of art, for ti to rise above its context and touch the viewer directly. But where this doesn’t happen, educated engagement still has its place.

Christopher P Jones writes about culture, art and life. Sign up for more.

Christopher P Jones

Written by

Art historian, writer, artist. Interested in fact, fiction and culture. Website chrisjoneswrites.co.uk

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