Meaning in art

Are Titles important for Artworks? by Jeannine Cook

Art historian Ernst Gombrich introduced radically new ways of thinking about how our brains perceive art; he argued that images in art don't represent perceived reality so much as they are dependent on what life experiences the viewer brings to the art.  As Eric R. Kandel explains in his book, The Age of Insight, Gombrich held that the viewer has to know ahead of time what might be seen in a painting in front of him or her in order really to see what is in the painting.

My reaction to this is: Are titles therefore important when it comes to art? By titling a work, does the artist help guide the viewer in his or her understanding and appreciation of what the artist is trying to say?

All artists, sooner or later, find that giving titles to their work, either two or three dimensional, is a complicated and  often difficult aspect of creation. I think that is why, especially now, there are so many "Untitled" works of art.  "Untitled" is a neutral statement, indicating almost an unwillingness on the artist's part to enter into further dialogue with the viewer, and implying that the art itself has to speakfor itself and the viewer has to use imagination and effort to find a personal interpretation and meaning in the work.

Robert Morris, Untitled, 1965-71, Mirror glass and wood. Image courtesy of Tate Modern, London

Robert Morris, Untitled, 1965-71, Mirror glass and wood. Image courtesy of Tate Modern, London

Personally, I find that "Untitled" sometimes does seem the most suitable name for art that is multi-interpretive, if one can coin such a phrase.  Often this happens when the subject might be based on reality, but can be viewed as entirely abstract, for example,  However, many times, I find that when I am first thinking about a drawing or painting - the "gestation" period - a name will come floating into my mind.  This title often helps me define and refine what I am trying to convey in the artwork.  I know, for instance, that some artists actually write out or draw out aspects of the planned work, simply to distill the essence of what is important to depict and say in the art.  Titles can be part of that process.  Many times, too, and here I am thinking of artists such as Titian or Michelangelo and countless others, a commission to the artist starts with a title, in essence - a painting of Saint Sebastian, for example.  By definition, the life and fate of that saint are both the subject matter of the art and at least part of its title.Since the art of seeing, whether viewing the world around us, or a work of art, is in essence interpretive, we often need cues and signposts along the way to help us.  Titles on artworks help.

I was reminded of this need for cues the other day during an art history class I have started attending.  All the images shown on the screen - well chosen and interesting - are without their titles, their size or any date.  I suddenly found myself feeling as if a part of the necessary information I was used to had been eliminated. I found I was missing part of the "scene".  Even abstract art, where artwork is often in series and numbered, frequently has an initial title and then the numbers within that series.  Even that helps!

As an example of titles, from my own work, does a title make a difference to the viewer in this case?  Either:

Untitled , silverpoint, Jeannine Cook

Untitled, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook


Cedar Remains , silverpoint, Jeannine Cook

Cedar Remains, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook

I would be interested to learn of people's responses.  Another artist who apparently thought about this issue is Mia Leijonstedt, a Finnish-born artist, who has worked with books and now more with jewellery in a most elegant fashion. In a blog entry, Untitled intention of no meaning, she delves into the same issue in thoughtful fashion.

Art's Accessibility by Jeannine Cook

Back in March 2009, famed art and culture critic and enfant terrible Dave Hickey wrote a long piece in Art in America about "Addictions". In it, he said that "in the last two centuries, the opportunity to make good art and literature has continuously expanded. In response to this broadening franchise, elite cultures have striven to defend their domain by escalating the level of 'difficulty' demanded from serious art and literature. The larger the field of runners, in other words, the higher the hurdles. Two centuries of expanding opportunities confronted by an escalating standard of difficulty have led to this consequence: today, anyone can make a work of art that nobody can understand." He ended a long plaint about the opacity of many contemporary works, the suspicion that greets any efforts to explain such works, and even the dulling and homogenising effect of art school curricula with a plea to bring "the fire from wherever you find it to an art world that needs it."

František Kupka, 1912, Amorpha, fugue en deux couleurs (Fugue in Two Colors), (Image courtesy of Narodni Galerie, Prague)

František Kupka, 1912, Amorpha, fugue en deux couleurs (Fugue in Two Colors), (Image courtesy of Narodni Galerie, Prague)

Amongst the proliferating world of blogs about art and websites promoting every imaginable form and aspect of art, there is a new endeavour which brings more "fire" into the public discourse about art. Today, PBS announced the launch of a new website, PBS Arts, to diffuse to new audiences their work on visual arts, crafts, and architecture.

It seems that the more the arts are "de-funded" by government, the more Public Radio and Public Television are taking up the challenge of informing the nation about artistic endeavours, accessible or opaque in nature. Awareness of what is happening in music, visual art, theatre, poetry, literature, crafts and architecture enriches us all, even if the coverage is, inevitably, only a small proportion of what is happening nationwide. Learning about the arts of today renders them much more accessible and interesting to everyone, negating to a degree the controlling influence Hickey ascribes to the "elite". There is another aspect of this wider accessibility: seeds are sown in people's minds which lead, later, to deeper interest and knowledge about the arts in many instances. More fire in the art world.

Embankment by Rachel Whiteread. Turbine Hall, The Tate Modern, Bankside, London. 12 November 2005

Embankment by Rachel Whiteread. Turbine Hall, The Tate Modern, Bankside, London. 12 November 2005

Definitions by Jeannine Cook

Here I am, defining myself for many a long year as an artist, and yet, yesterday, I was brought up short. I was reading a short article by Ruth Walker entitled Art, Artisans and artisanal grilled cheese in the January 24, 2010, edition of The Christian Science Monitor. In this article, Ms. Walker addresses the origins and meaning of the word "art". I realised that I felt totally ignorant about the whole subject. Abjectly ignorant!

I rushed off to my beloved Oxford English Dictionary to learn more. I knew that "art" came from the Latin "ars", a word that passed into French and then into early English, as did so many words. But the timing and nuances of meaning for "art" were fascinating. The first use of the word comes in 1225, when the word meant skill in doing anything as the result of knowledge and practice. According to Ms. Walker, the original Latin concept embraced a skill of things being "joined" or "fitted together". By 1386, Chaucer was talking of art as a human skill or human workmanship, as opposed to nature, while earlier that century, art was already included in general learning taught in schools, as well as the skills required in applying the principles of a special science.

Only in 1600 did the word "art" start to refer to the application of skills to subjects of taste such as poetry, music, dancing, etc. J. Taylor is cited in the OED as saying that, "Spencer and Shakespeare in art did excell". However, the use of "art" to refer to "the application of skills to the arts of imitation and design, Painting, Engraving, Sculpture, Architecture; the cultivation of these in its principles, practice and results: the skillful production of the beautiful in visible forms" only came into use after 1880.

From then on, art has mainly referred to the many aspects of the realm now referred to aesthetics, but it also now includes more negative aspects of studied actions, artful devices, trickery and cunning... hardly surprising!

What interested me, on digging further about the meaning of the word "art" as defined today, is how often that word "beautiful" creeps into the definition. In, the first definition is, "the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful (my emphasis), appealing, or of more than ordinary significance." In the Free Online Dictionary, they started the definition by, "the conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty (again, my emphasis), specifically the production of the beautiful in a graphic or plastic medium". In the Brainy Quote, they talk of, "the application of skill to the production of the beautiful by imitation or design, or an occupation in which skill is so employed, as in painting or sculpture".

The other word which appears often in the definition of "Art" is nature. In Your Dictionary, the first meaning is, "human ability to make things; creativity of man as distinguished from the world of nature (my emphasis)". In Answers, art is "a human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature."

Whilst the 20th century saw many reactions against the concepts of beauty and nature in the visual arts, in particular, I think it is instructive that art has for so, so long been defined as having skills and knowledge that derive from and celebrate the world around us. After all, it was Plato who said that "art is imitation".

Plato. Luni marble, copy of the portrait made by Silanion ca. 370 BC for the Academia in Athens. From the sacred area in Largo Argentina.  (Image courtesy of the Capitoine Museums)

Plato. Luni marble, copy of the portrait made by Silanion ca. 370 BC for the Academia in Athens. From the sacred area in Largo Argentina.  (Image courtesy of the Capitoine Museums)

Definitions of Art by Jeannine Cook

In June's issue of ARTNews, there is a long article about art which only happens once because you, the participant-viewer, happen to be experiencing it. Without you, there is no art. In other words, countless artists today are challenging the definitions of art way beyond the video, performance, installation, happening – all the diverse art creations we have seen proliferate.

By these definitions, is the traditional "art-object" likely to go the way of the dodo? This whole issue has been wandering around in my head as I worked today on a silverpoint drawing. It is all a little ironic. I endeavour, like countless other artists, to create a piece of art that is not only predicated on concepts of art that have existed very nicely, thank you, for at least eight centuries, but I also try to be mindful of doing things in a way such that the archival qualities of the piece are assured to the maximum possible. I have read enough already about the expensive headaches that curators and conservators are having in many museums as they try to preserve the artwork done last century with all sorts of less than permanent materials. Today, too, we read of the technical problems museums and collectors are encountering when they purchase cutting edge videos and other technological marvels. Before too long, the ever-galloping changes in technology leave these pieces high and dry on the flood banks, out-of-date and unusable as the equipment not longer exists. Some collectors are getting careful about requiring the artist to guarantee that the lifespan of the art is ensured.

In our headlong world, I often feel that the actual quality of art has, in recent times, become of secondary importance to the new, the trendy, the cutting edge and thus the attractive flavour of the moment for those who have had lots of money to spend. Considerations of longevity of the art, let alone its potential "timelessness", have seemingly been cast aside on many occasions.

As one now reads of the continued strong market shown by blue chip Old Masters and work that has been done in the more traditional media, it makes one wonder : what next? The serious, educated collector will always exist for whatever definitions of art pertain. But what future lies ahead for those of us who quietly go on trying to create art that can, if deemed worthwhile, last for at least a hundred years? One has to hope there will always be enough diversity among the publics of the world to ensure support of all types of art. Always assuming that we are not all collectively shortening our viable time span on earth through climate change... If we are, it becomes pretty academic at some point as to what type of art each of us creates! Perhaps that is the very point of the art which only happens once, when one is lucky enough to exist to experience it. That is worth pondering.

The Power of Images by Jeannine Cook

The power and influence of images is a huge and fascinating subject, over which countless experts pore. Professor Georges Didi-Huberman, who teaches social sciences at the Paris School of Advanced Studies, specialises in this subject. He claims that images only possess power when they are being used, and since their juxtaposition to something else inevitably alters them each time, all is relative. Carrying on this line of logic, he asserts that art history has been too lineal and monolithic (and he will be advising a fresh presentation of the art at the Reina Sofia Contemporary Art Museum in Madrid in keeping with this thesis).

Instead of art becoming ossified, he asserts that we should all draw on our past to create our present, like Picasso always remembering El Greco or Malevich being nourished by Russian icons. Interestingly, Didi-Huberman, in a long article in El Pais ( of June 2nd, 2009, talks of expecting very little from contemporary art, since it is predicated on money-making and networking in galleries and the art market, an "academic system". He contrasts it to the world of flamenco, where an enthusiast expects a great deal - "at a minimum, that flamenco talks of life and death."

Kazimir Malevich -  Black Cross, 1915, Oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm, Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

Kazimir Malevich - Black Cross, 1915, Oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm, Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

That art should ideally talk of passion and "life and death" goes back to my belief that in as many instances as one can manage, an artist should listen to his or her inner voice and be true to it. It is not always possible, of course, but when passion has driven the creation of an artwork, people know it. And they respond to it, even if they don't really know why. Things can go in and out of fashion, but good art rings "true". Dean Valentino, a television executive in Los Angles, was being interviewed in January 2009 in Art + Auction magazine and talked of today being a "time of connoisseurship" where every piece of art created needed to "justify itself" to art that had been created previously, in the same way as Didi-Huberman described Picasso, for instance, drawing on the heritage of El Greco.

Another expert art dealer, New Yorker Jack Gilgore, specialising in Dutch, Flemish and 19th century French paintings, put it more succinctly in a June interview in Art + Auction, ( : "Art is a form of communication and the pictures must have a soul. They have to have something special. You know it when you see it."

How to create an image of integrity, passion and power? That is the eternal challenge and goal for each of us artists!