Last years OpenUp (Open Studios event) and a mother and child (about 8year old) came into the studio. The child was curious, asked lots of questions about various pieces, and finally turned to the one above. What’s that about?, she asked, and so I explained that it was about the 52 workers who died, and the 400+ who were maimed or seriously injured digging the Woodhead Tunnel, in order that coal, iron and finished goods could be sent to Manchester and Liverpool for sale. “Of course, it can mean whatever you want it to” her mother butted in, perhaps alarmed at my frankness, but reiterating the standard post-structuralist mantra – defining meaning in art is the province of the viewer, not the artist.
I didn’t argue, though inside I died a little. You see, I paint with intent. My practice does not fit this mantra, and surely to insist that it must is to remove from me the right to communicate through my work? I have been pondering this question more and more, recently. I simply cannot see how such an absolute condition can be placed on meaning. If it is true now, then it has always been true, this is the nature of an absolute. Regardless of intent, the artist is stifled, gagged by a logic that not only denies us the right to imbue our work with meaning, but even accuses us of dictatorship if we try to insist upon a specific meaning being read. Conversely, the artist also escapes accountability. If a painting arouses feelings of racism or homophobia for example, this ceases to be the artists responsibility, for these feelings derive from an interpretation that the artist has no control over. For these reasons, I feel that the notion that art can mean whatever you want it to is a deceit, a denial on the one hand that the artist has a role in the meaning extracted from their work, and on the other a reduction of the power of art to aesthetic qualities, all notions of communication removed, for how can there be communication if the author is discounted?
It is of course difficult to travel the rough paths that deviate from the consensus direction. To imbue a painting with meaning is perhaps to accept that the communication it contains has little chance of lasting. Accepting that the clues, the symbols and cultural references within a painting will lose their potency or meaning over time confines the message to it’s socio-cultural context and period. Later readings at best rely on a historical understanding that itself may be the result of third or twenty third hand theorising. To attempt to ensure a particular meaning is received by the viewer also reduces the potential for ambiguity or subtlety. To succeed as art, a piece must of course still retain aesthetic qualities, and these should transcend meaning. Notwithstanding this, I and many others still paint with intent, and I judge the success of my pieces in terms of how effectively they convey the meaning I have placed within them as well as their capacity to delight or inspire their audience. Of course the viewer is free to interpret the work, and even these words, as they wish, but to simply argue that a work can mean whatever you want it to is to participate in a deceit that ultimately renders the artist meaningless.