This brief essay is the eleventh in a series addressing the emergence of meaning, by James Leonard.
(Please note: the following material is Â© copyright James Leonard 2006 and may not be used in any way without permission from author)
“So, what does this work of art mean?” I hear that question regularly during exhibition openings. It is a good question for an artgoer to ask, just don’t ask the artist. In fact, don’t ask anyone. Rather, ask the artwork itself, “What are you? What do you mean?”
There is a lingering misconception that art is communication, that it contains and transmits ideas. But art is a machine, a toy, a seed bank. Human interaction with a work of art generates meaning in realtime. We come to the conclusion that art already contains meaning because so many meaningful works of art tend to generate similar trends of meaning time and again. This misconception is similar to current sentiments about genetics. Genetic information is often portrayed as something akin a long computer program, with rigid instructions for assembling and controlling a living organism. In reality, it is a catalytic, tumbling game of plinko, with countless generations of trial and error randomly placing and spacing the nails in the board. When you let the chips fall, chance and circumstance are still involved. Even in our species, that does not give birth to large expendable numbers (as sea turtles do), malformed fetuses are spontaneously aborted early in a pregnancy. But despite those numbers, seeds of all sorts consistently develop into adult organisms.
So it is with artistic meaning. Through their own personal blend of chance and intuition, each artist arranges his or her own games of plinko. Due to forces beyond their control, these games will be lost on some audience members. For them, the artwork will be meaningless, easily ignored and forgotten. But for many audience members, the artwork will generate meaning. And like an organism that grows, develops, and ages, this meaning will tumble, rise, fall, and evolve. If the combination of elements is successful, all it should take to spark this dynamic process is a query from someplace between our biology and our cognition: “What are you? What do you mean?”