Art and Meaning, Price-wise

Venus, by Ken Price

I have had many exchanges over the years with other artists about the issue of meaning in art. It’s a topic that is continental in size and comes with a similar geographic diversity. Like large land masses, meaning can accommodate the needs of the “meaning is everything” crowd as well as those of us who prefer it best left alone—ambient, ambiguous, mysterious.

Meaning in art is one of those topics you want to share with like minded folks, right alongside religion, politics, how to raise a child and, if you are Italian, when to add the garlic. Belief systems engender a passion in us to be heard and to be right. But for all the histrionics, changing another person’s point of view in those domains is rare.

So this quote from Ken Price*, taken from an interview included in the Ken Price show catalog, Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective, is recommended reading for those who are already in my camp.

At the university, where meaning is important, specific meanings are always being assigned to everything. But I think meaning is ambiguous. It’s mysterious, uncertain and open to personal interpretation. I make concrete objects that stay the same, pretty much for the whole time they exist, and you can go away, and you can come back, and maybe you’ve changed, but the object will still be the same. Whereas meaning is based a lot on social conventions; it’s provisional. And as time goes by, those meanings can give way to other meanings, and they can go on changing forever.

As far as I’m concerned, the explaining artist puts himself or herself in front of the work for the purpose of destroying the mystery of how it came into being. Borges said, “Rational explanation destroys the faith that art requires of us.” That’s for the viewers. For the artists, I think we need to have faith that the art experience can take place between the viewer and the work itself.

In my work I’m not trying to embody any spiritual ideas or belief systems. But maybe that’s not the whole story. One time I asked Peter Schjeldahl if he thought an artist could make a work be spiritual as an act of will, and he answered that art is always spiritual and you can’t make it not be.

*More Slow Muse posts on Ken Price:

De Out and De In

Price in Perfection

Ken Price, the Glenn Gould of Object Makers

3 Replies to “Art and Meaning, Price-wise”

  1. There was an interesting discussion about Ken Price’s quote, which I agree with, on Facebook yesterday. I disagree, however, with Peter Schjeldahl’s comment: art that does not move me, that for me is unsuccessful has no spirit whatsoever. I don’t believe in a blanket statement like that. It is a mystery as to how a work is moving and has meaning, and each of us feels it differently.

  2. Maria Santiago says:

    …it is a collaborative effort… what the artist contributes what material itself contributes etc.. and the viewer gives the work the evocative power to speak… if it doesn’t speak to you it may or may not be that the work is lacking or the artist or the material, form etc…. yes it is mysterious… like any “I-Thou” relationship… meeting a work of art is like meeting a person…an organism and organized for the purpose of communicating… dialogue back and forth…

  3. I just saw Price’s exhibition yesterday (thanks to you); I love “Venus” and this photo doesn’t do it justice. The catalogue photos–though excellent–cannot convey the sensuality of these works, how they change under different shadows/light, how the textures vary, how the colors gleam. The depth of the reds in the work above are stunning, for example. I could spend all day looking at some of these sculptures.

    Octavio Paz says in The Bow and the Lyre that the reader of the poem, or the viewer of the art, is a crucial element (re: the “I-Thou” comment above). Paz also stresses the value of ambiguity in contemporary poetry as that ambiguity allows for the interpretive exchange, which is not the same as “meaning.”

    “All poetic creation is historical; every poem is a longing to deny succession and to establish an enduring realm.”

    I don’t know; to me, this quote seems to relate to the Price quote you cite.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: