Caravaggio Judith Beheading Holofernes 1598-99

“The eye is peremptory in its judgments. It decides what to see and why. Each of our glances is as much exclusion as inclusion. We select, editorialize, and enhance. Our idea of the pretty is a limited notion that cannot possibly apply to earth’s metamorphic underworld, a cataclysmic realm of chthonian violence. We choose not to see this violence on our daily strolls. Every time we say nature is beautiful, we are saying a prayer, fingering our worry beads.” Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, 1990.

What is meaning in painting? It’s a question that Michael Zahn, Paul Corio and I were discussing the other night. How does a painting become visually compelling if it strives for a particular narrative structure or a particular style or a particular vision? Or must the painting forego all of this search for meaning and just “appear”? How does a painting impart meaning? Can it? Is meaning the artist’s responsibility or the viewer’s? Does “beauty” play a part in this and if so how? Further is it “ugliness” or “beauty” which draws us in, fascinates us? The questions surrounding meaning proliferated throughout our discussion. We moved through the old masters all the way to our current dilemma concerning the meanings and possibilities of abstract painting here at the end of the Modern era. Pollock who made beautiful paintings said that Greenberg never understood what his paintings were about. “Technique is a means of arriving at a statement,” said Jackson Pollock. So what statement or meaning did Jackson ascribe to those beautiful paintings? Are these paintings simply decorative works, comfortable armchairs for the exhausted business person? Or do they hint at something more? It was a wonderfully impassioned and curious conversation to have at a local watering hole sitting across from the barflies and playboys.

Barnett Newman Eve 1950

“The problem [an artist’s intention] is not limited to Newman’s case but is pervasive in the field of art history, where there has been for some time a tendency to focus on the viewer or beholder as the source of meaning, at the expense of the author (one thinks of Roland Barthes’s crucial essay of 1967, “The Death of the Author,” as partly inaugurating this shift). What seems to matter is not what the author or artist intended some text or painting to mean but what kinds of experiences a text or painting creates for the reader or viewer. And because, from this point of view, meaning is found in the individual’s particular experience, what also begins to matter is who that individual is and where or when it is that he or she encounters the work. Which is to say that the meaning of the artwork becomes a matter of identity and context rather than authorial intention.” Footnote 8 in Michael Schreyach’s Barnett Newman’s Sense of Space, 2013.

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