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: