Meaning and Experience

A man encounters a work of art. It is a mobile, with steel arms and flat sails that catch the currents in the air, warm and cold. Across and back it turns, arcing slowly through space, like a clockwork of metal clouds. The man says, “That’s not art, that pile of metal parts there. That’s not art. Why, I could have made that!”

Right! You could have made that! A human being made that. That’s the point. Then, it’s up to the other humans to come by and see the thing, wonder about it, and maybe make some sense out of it.

How is that sense made?

There are two types of sense that a work of art can make. It can have meaning. It can also be experienced. Of course, it has both qualities and they blend. It is important to be aware of both senses, and to be able to tell them apart, because we make these different senses in different ways.

Philosopher Robert Stecker’s essay “Depiction as Seeing-In” sheds some light on one way we experience a work of art. We see the object itself, but then we see-in the object. There is often something else that the object depicts.

[Seeing-in stands in contrast with ordinary seeing]( Of course, when I look at a painting I do see it in the ordinary sense. I see a canvas covered by paint that has certain properties: a rectangular shape, a colored surface, and a visible design on that surface. If I truly see all of these things then it follows that there exists a painting that has the various properties mentioned so far, just as if I see a brown cow, there is a brown cow that I see. … Further, while I am seeing-in the painting these various things, I am typically still aware that I am looking at a painting with certain surface design features.

Now, if the image depicted on the object were a religious icon, for example, then perhaps there is another level of seeing-in. In a symbolic image, the symbol is seen-in the image, which is similar to the way that an image is seen-in an object.

Of course, not all meaning is pictorial or symbolic. Instead of seeing-in, there are a variety of questions we can ask to see-around the art, to give it context, which is another kind of meaning. We could ask: Who made the thing? Was that person male or female, rich or poor?  With what intention was it made? Out of which materials? Where and when was it made? Who was it made for? Can I do anything with it?

Seeing-in and seeing-around are both intellectual pursuits. For the most part, questions of depiction, symbolic intent and context can all be answered in concrete ways. These questions generally arrive at objective answers.

Some critics would infer from these objective, intellectual qualities that the meaning of art is universal. T.S. Eliot says, for example, that the greatness of a work of art, or literature, stems from that work’s universal meaning. More recently, Noel Carroll echoes that idea by adding that “if anything is to count as a necessary condition of art status, then it must be a property had by every artwork.” But is universality even possible? If it is not possible, is it relevant? Are the objective qualities the only relevant qualities?

Even if we could know that something held the same meaning for everyone who encountered it, how would we know that they all held that meaning to the same degree, or for the same reasons? Experience, as we all know, is a subjective thing. It is rarely apprehended by everyone in the same way. How can it be universal? How is experience related to meaning?

There have already been several frustrated rebellions against universality in art. These rebellions emphasized more subjective qualities such as abstraction, experimentation for its own sake, intentional meaninglessness, and expressionism. These qualities are all related to experience.

Experience is not objective. It is more felt than known, more shown than described. Experience is incompatible with the idea of universal meaning.

Beauty is the chief victim of this incompatibility. Beauty is the most subjective quality, and therefore the least democratic, the least saleable. Our culture does not prefer to ask: why make this thing? How does the thing make me feel? What ideas, sensations, feelings, memories, or notions does the thing evoke in me? Is it a beautiful thing? Our culture does not emphasize these questions because, necessarily, the answers would not be concrete or consistent. Many of us are uncomfortable with the subjective qualities in art, and possibly also with those qualities within ourselves.

A man encounters a mobile sculpture, with steel arms and flat sails. There is nothing depicted for him to see-in it. It symbolizes nothing to him. He has no context for it. His experience of the thing has been that the thing is meaningless. He gives up. This is an unfortunate result, because understanding isn’t everything, when it comes to art. Art is not science.

Art can, in many cases, leave us confronted by a thing that defies the ability to see in it, any meaning.  In addition, there are unfortunate circumstances where the context needed to _see-around _it is unclear or missing. What, then, are we left to do in order to make any sense out of the art?

We are left to experience it.

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