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18 July 2008
what's it all about?
Now Playing: princess one point five - vous je vous
Topic: art

untitled #116

Now that the largest projects that have been on my plate for the past couple of months are all done and dusted I've been catching up on some light reading.

Following links from the Arts Hub UK weekly "Front Page" email that I subscribed to a few weeks ago, I read an interview with Tracey Emin which leaves me no more decided on how I feel about her or her art; and one about Martin Creed's "Work No. 850" currently being staged at the Duveen Gallery, Tate Britain.

And I found myself having to agree with the author of the latter article in regard to his points about art and meaning, and the imposition of meaning on art:

What we're up against here are two of contemporary art's guiding imperatives. Rule 1) Justification by meaning: the worth and interest of a work resides in what it's about. Rule 2) Absolute freedom of interpretation: a work is "about" anything that can, at a pinch, be said about it.

In short, meanings are arbitrary, but compulsory. And this double bind holds almost universal sway. Whenever you learn that a work explores or investigates or raises questions about something, that it's concerned with issues around this or notions of that or debates about the other, you know you're in its grip.

It's weird how people can't resist. If you want to make art sound serious, this is simply the way you do it. Read any gallery wall-caption or leaflet or catalogue, and see how long it is before the writer commends the work solely on the basis of what it's about. And then note how it is isn't really about that at all.

Meaning comes first – even before the work itself. At some point in the near future Antony Gormley's project One and Other will occupy the much-discussed fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. For 100 days, 24 hours a day, a succession of volunteers will stand, for an hour each, as living statues on the plinth-top.

What will happen exactly? Goodness knows. It's anyone's guess. But what will it mean? Oh, we know that already, for the artist himself has explained: "Through elevation onto the plinth and removal from common ground the subjective living body becomes both representation and representative, encouraging consideration of diversity, vulnerability and the individual in contemporary society".

And in the circumstances, pre-emptive interpretation is only to be expected. When meanings are crucial but also completely out of control, the artist had better get his meanings in first. He must make it clear his work will encourage us to consider "diversity, vulnerability and the individual" – rather than other less uplifting things, like exhibitionist tendencies among the public or messianic tendencies among artists.

One and Other is another of those works that might mean anything or nothing. But because it's art, not life, it has to mean something. In fact, that's pretty well what defines the difference between them.

Although there are images of mine that were directly born from an event, an experience, an idea and therefore do have meaning that I may choose to elaborate upon with text or a journal entry; and I have had to write proposals at various stages in regard to my art before it's even executed; I don't believe that art has to have meaning or a prepared explanation by the artist or a gallery accompanying it for it to be a successful artwork.

I find it interesting to know what the artist was aiming for / thinking about / influenced by when producing the artwork, and I enjoy the written word and the way it can be used with images, whether as a title or as accompanying text. But not everything lends itself to a title, not all artworks require explanation or accompanying text of any type.

Although I always feel proud of my work when an audience recognises in it the same ideas, meaning and influences that I have been conscious of when creating the work, I am just as intrigued to find out what other interpretations the viewer brings to my images.

Because in the end we all view art (and most things in life) from our own subjective viewpoint. The work in front of us is "tainted" by our own knowledge, our own experience, our own personal visual preferences. When you view an artwork, listen to a piece of music, watch a film, there are always doors opening in your own memory behind which lie other artworks / images you've seen, sounds / music you've heard, films you've watched, places you've been, people you've met, experiences you've had of which the work may remind you or may colour your enjoyment (or lack thereof) and interpretation of the artwork.

Posted by Bronwen Hyde at 14:56 BST
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