Blog ♥ Can I create art without worrying about what it means?

Whether intended it or not, art carries a meaning or political attitude. Therefore, artists should either create with that meaning in mind or retroactively seek it to ensure that their practice is aligned with their values.

Many artists beginning their practice are skeptical of artist statements and the idea that all art must mean something. Many of us have, in the course of an art gallery visit, shifted our gaze between the alien countenance of an abstract portrait and that small placard to its right: "See how the brushstrokes reveal hidden truths about labor, poverty, and inequality." Back to the portrait, then back again to the placard. Some of us have been asked to stretch our imaginations so far—with little help from the art historian and curator—that we conclude that artist statements are, at best, wishful guesses and, at worst, lies told in the service of keeping wayward liberal-arts majors employed.

Art is an expression, an externalized feeling that can impress upon the hearts of others. Can the artist control how the work makes others feel? No, thankfully. Yet when an artist articulates something in a way that is beautiful, or unconventional, or with clever nuance and complication, and when the observer understands it from this novel perspective, a special kinship is born. The observer comes away inspired, educated, understood. The art is meaningful.

What, then, if the artist has taken up figure drawing for the sake of learning human proportions? Or, she has drawn a circle for the sake of practicing linework? The circle is just a circle. It means nothing. The distinction here is that the outcome of practice is practice, not art. This work is the artist's upskilling. Only in the rare case, as when a well-known artist's sketchbooks are hung in a gallery for the perusal of others seeking some glimpse of the creative process, may practice function as art. But this is a reframing of the work, and that reframing itself imbues its own kind of message on the behalf of the reframer. This is to say that practice does not need to carry a message, though sometimes it does when specifically framed for this purpose.

Propaganda poster parody

Practice aside, art—art that is framed and hung, art that is projected on a bedsheet tacked to a warehouse wall, art that is draped over a meat hook, art that is performed on a stage, art that is posted online, shared, stolen, made into a meme against the creator's will—conveys an attitude. Where the artist has not been intentional in crafting and conveying this meaning, the void will be filled by the mind of the observer, the art critic, the curator, or the historian. In such a void, the work may to come to mean something contrary to the artist's values. The work may be used to sell an idea or viewpoint that goes against all the artist believes in. For this reason, the artist is encouraged to make work with its meaning in mind or, should this pressure stifle the creative process, to post-rationalize meaning after the work is made.

Posted November 18 at 10:10 PM