Monday, September 19, 2005

What Does Art Mean?

Many of the things people say and write about art do not make sense, because they talk about meaning. They explain the meaning of a poem by Emily Dickenson; or they reveal the theme of "Macbeth." Theme is a kind of meaning. Whether you're talking about theme, meaning or subtext, you're talking about something other than the poem itself. The poem isn't its meaning. If it was, then why would we need two words, "poem" and "meaning"? The meaning is something you derive FROM the poem.

Do poems (stories, plays, paintings, etc.) really have meanings? That depends. It depends on what you mean by "meanings." Which is exactly the problem. When you tell me that a poem has a meaning, you may mean something very different by that statement than what I think you mean. We both may mean different things by meaning, but we may think we mean the same thing. So we might be like two guys talking about "M*A*S*H". We might think we're talking about the same thing. In fact, you are talking about the Robert Altman movie and I am talking about the TV Show.

Art itself is fiendishly difficult to talk about (what IS art?). So to figure out the meaning of meaning, let's start with something much simpler. Let's start with this symbol: 7. What does it mean?

Most people will say that it means the number seven. Suppose a weirdo says it means a horse. Is he wrong? My gut tells me that he is wrong. EVERYONE knows that 7 means seven. But why? Why should it mean seven and not horse? How can I prove to the weirdo that he is wrong? Where's the secret book where I can look up 7 and see what it means? The dictionary? Okay, I look it up, discover that -- yup -- 7 means seven and, triumphantly, I thrust the dictionary in front of the weirdo's eyes.

"So what?" he says. "Just because it's in the dictionary; that doesn't make it right."

"Of course it does," I say. "That's the whole point of dictionaries. They tell us what words and symbols mean."

"No," he says, "they tell you what the writers of the dictionary think they mean. I disagree with them."

"Oh, come on," I say, "We ALL trust dictionaries." But I realize that I've said something foolish. Saying "We all trust dictionaries" is just like saying, "EVERYONE knows that 7 means seven." I'm still saying that 7 means whatever MOST people say it means. Or I'm arguing my point by saying that 7 means what important people say it means -- like the scholars who write dictionaries. But if someone asks, "Why should I care what most people -- or what important people -- mean?" I have no answer. Other than to stammer, "You just SHOULD!"

After all, the symbol 7 wasn't handed down to us by God. At some point, some person made it up. He decided that it meant something to him, and maybe he explained that meaning to other people. "When I write 7, I mean…" or "Hey, let's all use the symbol 7 to mean…" In other words, he was setting up a rule and asking other people to play by it. But he couldn't force people to play by it. And he couldn't claim that his rule proved that 7 meant anything in particular.

Mathematicians do this all the time. They set up rules for variables. They say x equals three. They are not saying that x MEANS three in any permanent sense. They can't prove to you that x means three. Rather, they are saying, let's all agree to a rule that (in this math problem), the symbol x stands for the number three. If you refuse to follow this rule, that's fine. But you won't get the same results in that particular problem as the people who DO follow the rule. So it's USEFUL to play by the rule. But a rule is just a rule. It may be useful, but it's nothing more than useful.

In chess, there's a rule that states the king can only move one square each turn. Does this mean that it’s physically impossible to pick up the king and move him three squares? Of course not. It's just a rule of the game. And it's useful to follow that rule if you want to play that game that most people call chess.

We tend to agree on rules for symbol meanings because it's useful to do so. If we all agree that 7 means seven, we can get all sorts of work done. (I know what I'm going to get when I ask you for 7 dollars.) By agreeing to follow certain rules, we can communicate more effectively.

All this is fine, but many people feel uncomfortable leaving it at that. Surely when we're saying 7 means seven, we're not just agreeing to follow some rule. Surely 7 MEANS seven in some cosmic sense. Surely when someone says it means horse, I can tell them that they are WRONG -- not merely eccentric. Surely I can PROVE to them that they are wrong.

No. I can't. I can appeal to dictionaries, but dictionaries are just catalogues of they way symbols are commonly used. Dictionary definitions claim, "This is how most people use this word."

We know that words and symbols don't have set meanings, because we've seen meanings change. "Awful" used to mean "full of awe." So at one time, "Your cake made me feel aweful," was not necessarily an insult. The common meaning changed when the majority of speakers decided to change it. They changed the rule. So we're back to the majority again. And if someone chooses not to follow the majority's rule, he isn't wrong. He's just eccentric. (Unless we define "wrong" as "not following the rule of the majority." We'd better think really carefully about the consequences of such a decision. Were the Germans who resisted Hitler wrong to do so?)

I am not arguing in favor of eccentricity. I highly recommend that we all use 7 to mean seven. I am simply saying that when someone challenges us by asking why, we can only answer, "Because it's useful to do so." We can't claim "because that's what 7 MEANS" unless "what it means" and "the most useful way to use it" mean the same thing. In which case, why have both phrases? I don't think we want use and meaning to mean the same thing. We want to be able to say, "I know what x means, but I'm using it to stand for three."

Let's say we all agree to play by the rules: 7 means seven; 3 means three. How do we know the rules? When someone writes 7, do we have to flip through a book to work out what they mean? No. We've internalized the rules. We instantly know what they mean, because we learned and memorized the rules years ago. In this same sense, a chess master doesn't have to think about the fact that the king can only move one square per turn. He KNOWS that the king can only more one square per turn. That rule seems natural to him -- almost like the law of gravity -- because he internalized it so long ago.

I think this is why we get upset when someone claims that 7 means horse. It SEEMS like 7 means seven because we don't have to look up its meaning, we instantly KNOW its meaning. At one point, when we were very small, we did need to look it up (or be told it over and over). But we've long since internalized this rule. So it just seems right. It seems like the meaning just comes to us. In fact, we don't even have a sense of meaning. For us, 7 just IS seven. Except it isn't. We're just responding to our training.

Still, it might be useful to say define meaning as "common associations." 7 means seven because most people will instantly (and without effort or even awareness) associate it with seven. We haven't made meaning any more profound. It's still not cosmic. It's still based on majority rules. But it's based on rules of a game that most people play without thinking about it.

Furthermore, most people can't stop playing by these rules. I've been thinking of 7 as seven for so many years that I can't help making this association. It's not under my control. If you write a 7, I AM going to think of seven.

Meaning in art works along similar lines. A poem, play or painting can't MEAN anything in some provable, cosmic sense. All it can do is suggest associations. If a poem makes 99% of the people who read it think of "racism," we can say it's ABOUT racism -- or that its THEME is racism -- but we just mean that most people who read it (or maybe most people who read it carefully) will probably think of racism. They will probably all think of the same theme, because (a) they are all reading the same words and (b) they all (being human) have similar brains.

Let's examine those two points more closely: yes, we all read the same words when we read the same poem. But note that words and sentences are much more complex than numerical symbols. 7 is relatively simple. It's a small figure and, for most of us, it maps onto a single concept: seven.

Or does it? Seven is the lucky number. There are seven days of the week. There are Seven Wonders of the World. Do you think of these things when you see the symbol 7? Maybe. But you probably don't think about the fact that my grandmother had seven sisters. But I DO think about that. So even the simple symbol 7 doesn't conjure up quite the same associations in my mind as it does in yours.

Let's take a more complex thought: "Ed went to the store." What do those words mean? On a literal level, they mean that some person named Ed started out somewhere other than at-the-store and eventually arrived at-the-store. But when we talk about meaning or theme in art, we generally don't mean this literal level. So what does that sentence MEAN?

When I was a child, I was friends with an Ed. When we were 19, he died in a car accident. I can't really see the word "Ed" without thinking about that, so when I read "Ed went to the store," that IS an association that gets conjured up for me. On a less dramatic level, when I think of "store," I think of the little family grocery down the street from my apartment in Brooklyn. What do you think of? Sears? Macy's? Barnes and Noble? Is one of us right? Is one of us wrong?

The point here is that though 7 may conjure up different associations for different people, all of these associations (except for those of the most eccentric among us) will connect somehow to the number seven. But as our symbols get more complex, the possible associations quickly become more and more varied and complicated.

Here's a poem by the 17th Century poet, Matsuo Basho:

The first cold shower;
Even the monkey seems to want
A little coat of straw.

What does it MEAN? What is it ABOUT? What is its THEME? If you asked me these questions, I might say something like, "it's about being cold" or "the need for security." I can't prove that these are the themes of this poem. All I can say is that these ideas appear in my head when I read it. And I can assume that they -- or similar thoughts -- appear in your head. Because you are human too, and we are similar.

Which leads me to my second point, above. How similar are we? Yes, as humans we have many things in common. If you prick us, do we not bleed? But we're also a highly malleable species. We differ from each other genetically. We differ from each other via our backgrounds and upbringing. So while I connect Falstaff's drinking with a general theme of loving-life-and-living-it-to-the-fullest, you (having been beaten by your drunkard father when you were six) may connect it to a theme of immoral living. Is one of us right? Is one of us wrong? On what basis other than an appeal to the majority?

Many critics try to break the stalemate by invoking intent: what did Shakespeare intend us to think of when he wrote about Falstaff? If he intended a lesson on temperance, then you are right and I am wrong. If he intended a Bacchanalian revel, than I am right and you are wrong. So which is it, William? Come on: tell us the CORRECT theme!

In "The Intentional Fallacy," M. K. Wimsatt, Jr. and Monroe C. Beardsley debunked the idea that the author's intentions matter when examining that author's work. I agree with them, but I won't take the time to duplicate their whole argument here. But I will say that if you'd like to judge meaning by intent, you have a tough road ahead of you.

Here are some things to think about:

1) What if the author is dead and never published a statement of his intentions?
2) What if the author published two contradictory statements about his intentions?
3) What if the author published something nonsensical about his intentions (not all artists understand their own work)?
4) What if we don't know who the author is?
5) What if two clever critics are trying to mine an author's intentions from clues in his writings and biography? What if these critics come to two different and contradictory conclusions?

But all of these fascinating questions are really beside the point. For the sake of argument, say that Shakespeare pops into the present day and tells you that you are wrong about Falstaff. And let's say that we disagree with "The Intentional Fallacy." Okay, then you're wrong. But that doesn't change the fact that your father beat you. And it doesn't change the fact that when you read about Falstaff, you think about your father.

Let's not forget, we're talking about art here, not math problems. Why do we consume art? For many reasons. But surely we chiefly consume art for its sensual and emotional impact on us. You can tell me until next Sunday that my feelings about a work of art are "wrong," but I don't care. My feelings are my feelings. My feelings are why I care about art in the first place.

Another dodge is to say that while meanings are relative to a particular person, some meanings are more beautiful than others. This is true. Thinking back to "Ed went to the store," I will admit that the store is more beautiful if it's Crate and Barrel than if it's Ace Hardware. So I'll run with Crate and Barrel. But, as the saying goes, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." So we're back to relativism again.

On a cruder level, we can ask "Was Audrey Hepburn beautiful?" Most people would say yes. But what about the guy who likes "fat chicks"? He says, "No way! She was too skinny." Is he wrong or just odd?

Let's look at that poem one more time:

The first cold shower;
Even the monkey seems to want
A little coat of straw.

The poem is comparing a person to a monkey, saying that it's natural to resent a cold shower. A human doesn't like it. And a human SHOULDN'T like it. Even a monkey -- even something less-than-human yet almost human -- doesn't like to be cold.

Is that really what the poem is saying? Look at the literal words. There's no mention of a human. The phrase "Even the monkey…" implies that the preceding line is about some creature OTHER than a monkey. But why a human? Why not an elephant or panda?

Still, most of us will assume "human." But that assumption is NOT in the poem itself. It's in our brains. No where in the poem is the word "human" mentioned. But most of us think of "human" when we read the poem. The poem has the same effect on most of us. But if one guy out there doesn't think of human, he isn't wrong. He's just unusual. He can't be wrong, because the poem doesn't mention humans.

If we discard the notion of right and wrong meanings, then we are left with an art world that is necessarily relativistic. There ARE no absolute themes. There is no absolute meaning. So what? This may lead to some trouble when grading a paper in Art Appreciation 101, but other than that, what's the big deal?

Robbed of absolute meaning, art becomes like most of the other things we love best in life. Our spouses, our family, our friends and the food we eat. They don't have the same meanings to everybody, but they have deep, personal meaning for us.

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