Re-presenting – Measuring: Emotionality and Meaning

My fascination over ‘What is Art’

I’ll try not to repeat myself in relation to the article on originality, as I raise again concept, or meaning. A lecturer at a number of the London art galleries, Dr Richard Stemp, highlighted a very relevant point when I heard him speak last week. At the Tate Modern, he is regularly interrogated to the meanings of the pieces he includes in his lecturers and that he passes on his tours. At the Wallace Collection, where I found him, such interrogatives hardly ever arise. There is of course meaning to paintings where the visual is representative. Take for example the mannerist period in which nearly all works of arts were allegoric and not to be taken only at face value – this would include the later work of Michelangelo. Motives of the artist are on very few occasions left silent. The study of the history of art would not be as insightful as it is if works of art were purely to be interpreted on an exterior, aesthetic level.


Meaning as a word has connotations of emotion. To have meaning is often to have significance because of the way it makes you feel. To have meaning usually stretches beyond a base of emotions – frequently it is only put into use when referring to deep or power emotionality except that although the adjective deep or power is meant, it is omitted.


As I have been writing, I’ve had many friends share their opinions with me. One stated that the best method of distinguishing between items of art and those that are not, is through this measure alone, questioning: does the ‘object’ provoke a reaction or an emotion? If it does, it is art. Art must cause an emotional response. I find this not definitive enough.


Now I will return to my opinion on emotionality as a measure of art. To measure art on whether it causes a response and not what kind of response is good because it becomes less of a judgement on the quality of the art. However to measure it purely on whether it causes a response is like a bad experiment – it relies on too many human factors that can be sporadic and desultory.  Art is subjective because people’s footings vary so much. There are those who will weep endlessly during the film A Walk to Remember and those to which the sentimentality will little affect them.  Especially also, some look at art and they are so disinterested that their apathetic response barely surfaces.


Leading feminist art historian Linda Nochlin writes in one of her essays, ‘[the] misconception [- of] the public at large – of what art is: the naïve idea that art is the direct, personal expression of individual emotional experience, a translation of personal life into visual terms. Art is almost never that, great art never is. The making of art involves a self-consistent language of form…the language of art is, more materially, embodied in paint and line of canvas or paper, in stone or clay or plastic or metal it is neither a sob story nor a confidential whisper.’ 

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