Making and Meaning
What is the relationship between an artist’s creative practice and the meaning of a work of art? There is a long tradition in Western society that considers artistic creativity to be inspired. Artistic inspiration offers to the meaning of a work of art a certain authority that it otherwise would not have. The inspired artist works in a frenzy of passion and madness as he or she becomes a channel for otherworldly intimations (see Plato’s Phaedrus for a classic description). The idea of inspiration is ancient, but it was highly influential in the 19th century, and even today the language of inspiration is a popular way to talk about the making of art.
In the 1960s, a form of painting called Photo Realism (also Hyperrealism, Superrealism, and others) developed that turned the notion of the inspired artist on its head. Many Photo Realists, especially those seminal figures such as Malcolm Morley, Chuck Close, and Audrey Flack, start their paintings by making corresponding grids on a photograph and a canvas. Then they begin the laborious task of translating from the photograph to the canvas. Linda Chase writes that Chuck Close “recreates a commercial printing process, airbrushing the three colors from a basic tricolor separation of red, yellow, and blue tints in layers to achieve full color.” To facilitate the “unbiased” reproduction of a painting, some Photo Realists, such as Malcolm Morley, would reverse the image and paint it upside down.
The subject of the Photo Realist painting is the photograph and not the real world. Photo Realism presents the possibility of leaving the real world without sensing the loss of it. By translating directly from the camera, the Photo Realist produces an image with the visual impact and size of an original that ironically derives from a copy. Photo Realism exemplifies a postmodern aesthetic, which has been compared to the myth of Narcissus because “Narcissus’ reflection in the water … disintegrates the moment one reaches out to grasp it.”
The foregoing comments are not meant to disparage works of Photo Realism or works produced by “inspired artists.” The point is, rather, that our assumptions about the creative practice of the artist somehow creep into our interpretations of the art. The moment of victory for the Photo Realist is when the viewer discovers that the painting is nothing more than an impersonal “mechanical production” and that the image is deceptive. Whereas inspiration confers authority upon a work, the opposite method employed by the Photo Realist discredits the image. These issues arise even more forcefully in memoir writing when an author admits to falsifying certain details, which leaves the audience feeling upset and thinking the book is “meaningless” (even if it is a good story).
So, it would seem that people want works of art that are meaningful. But what makes a work of art meaningful, and in what sense is art making also meaning making? Contrary to the examples that I have discussed, is it possible to separate the process from the product so that the meaning of a work of art is only conditioned by what happens after the product is “finished”? I think there is an intuitive relation between the artist’s creative practice and the meaning of the work of art, but articulating this relation is very difficult. Your thoughts would be most appreciated.
(Painting by Richard Estes)