We use art to find similar souls amongst the masses of people; those who understand beauty and aesthetics in the way we do, those that are sensitive to similar impulses, that laugh at the same jokes and cry to the same saddening tunes. But many of us misunderstand how our soul-searching actually happens, when art is involved.
While many might believe that each piece of art — each painting, musical, sculpture, video work, you name it — has its own meaning, its own set of messages that await to be unpacked by an eager gallery visitor, in reality this isn’t exactly true.
The Mona Lisa has no intrinsic meaning, it doesn’t hold some uniform message to be opened and read by us, at least not by herself. Neither does any Rothko painting, or even the Thinker by Rodin.
The truth is, nothing has meaning on its own, all our experiences come from within our own bodies. We see things that aren’t us, we hear sounds that other beings or objects make, we smell and feel and taste … and we do all of this with our own bodies and minds.
Yes, other people and things surely do exist, I’m by no means a solipsist, but though external, all the impulses that we come in contact with first have to become internalised to be experienced, felt and then understood, or given meaning to.
This is quite profound; there is no meaning outside of us, at least not to the point where we could really understand it. And it shows best in our lovely field of artistic creation, the area of countless explanations of various works of art and millions of theories, up to the point of psychological explanations of every aspect of an artist’s life — from bathroom schedules to childhood, everything is important for us to understand their work. But why, if there is no meaning packed into the work itself?
While one might think that experts learn about the old masters to uncover new messages in their art, it is actually the other way around; they try to find a similar mindset to those who made the works of art and work hard in moulding their mental picture of the world to fit the one Michelangelo had for example — only then are they really able to understand his work.
I used to really love trains when I was young; I have a very fond memory of when my family rode the newly built Intercity train from one end of the country to the other — we didn’t have any intention of going anywhere, we just went along for the ride.
Now I don’t like them that much. The exact same intercity train that brought me immense joy means little to me now, apart from a fond memory. The interesting part: the train didn’t change at all, it’s still the same big piece of metal and glass on wheels.
All that really changed is me; I just grew up.
But to tie the loose ends of our main story; that’s what art is all about.
We artists try to document, uncover and express who we are to the world and what the world mean to us at a certain point in our life. And only those viewers, who take their time and try to become us in some way, shape or form — if only for a moment, but especially in the right moment — will actually be able to understand our writings on the walls of society. Everybody else is just guessing.