It is part of the human nature to seek understanding as well as comfort and safety as John Bowlby states in his Attachment Theory. He affirms that when a person cannot find these qualities in his attachment figure he or she develops secondary attachment strategies: the individual either intensifies the efforts to force these qualities into the figure (Hyper activation) or he/she suppresses these needs and attempts to deal with them alone (Deactivation) (Communication Theory, 2020). This same pattern of reaction, of the individual towards the uncomfortable, can be observed in the relationship between art and its audience. When people attempt to confront something unknown, most of them would either close themselves off from it and start judging it as nonsense (deactivation) or they would try too hard and set out to force some meaning into it in order to make themselves comfortable (hyper activation).
Stated the above, there are a few questions that may arise spontaneously, like what is then considered the right strategy to approach art, and more importantly, is it really necessary to understand it?
In order to be able to answer these questions, it is essential to acknowledge the nature of art and its purpose. Some people would describe art as a mean of communication, which is a significant but not exhaustive statement if we aim at its comprehension. It is not possible, in fact, to limit the aim of art to its ability to convey a message. Taking this assertion as a starting point, it seems unavoidable to make the comparison among art and language.
Art and language, as a matter of fact, have a lot of similarities in their structure and function, which cannot be restricted to the cause of communication. As Wittgenstein claims, in fact, “language is flexible, subtle and multiform” and again “language is a complex living organism” (Ara, 2006) and so is art. He also writes that “the nature of art is like that of the nature of games” (Ara, 2006) and so is the one of language.
Just like in games, both art and language, can be interpreted in different ways according to a set of rules that they refer to. Thus, in order for the art or language game to be understood, the rules that regulate it have to be accessible to the players, the spectators, and make sense for them. However, since “there is no set of definite rules, no pattern to be laid and no single explanation to be given” (Ara, 2006), it becomes difficult for the viewers to then relate to the game. It is the job of the creator to provide the key of interpretation of his/her practice to the public and it is his/her choice whether or not to make them clear and explicit.
In the art world this set of rules can be considered as the key for the work of art. Yet, since art in spite of language does not function through words, the path toward its understanding is slightly more complex.
As Jacquelyn Mc Bain comments “If the language of art could be replaced by the written word, it would not have a reason for being” and that is why the key of an artwork is not composed of words but it is instead the result of the combination of the image and its context, within the history of art it responds to. In other words, in order to be able to comprehend a piece of art it is necessary to first acknowledge the imagery and the background it refers to, which does not seem so easy nowadays since “language and imagery have become enigmas, problems to be explained, prison houses which lock the understanding away from the world” as W.J.T. Mitchell points out. (Mitchell, 1984)
In the process of decoding a work of art, it is also essential to take into account that some people may not be included in the artist-public conversation at all. But it is important that, although the artist has the power to address an exclusive audience, he/she still has to be aware that the key chosen, and the language employed, need to be common to a designed group of people in order to make a conversation happen.
It is fundamental for the communication that the key refers to culturally common images and a relatable context, as otherwise its comprehension would just remain that of the artist and the audience may adopt different strategies, like hyper activation or deactivation, in order to understand the piece of work. I
Various artists have had diverse approaches to the key of their work according to the different responses they have been seeking from their audience and the world. Some of them embraced a more humoristic attitude towards it, like John Baldessari, while others, such as Joseph Beuys, decided not to directly or explicitly share their key with the viewers.
Baldessari’s approach is the one of many artists, yet original in its own terms. The artist has been known for his original use of appropriated imagery through which he suggests a commentary on today’s society and its contemporary culture. Through his art practice, he also examined the malleable nature of artistic media by morphing together photography, text and painting and he played with the relationship between language and images in an ironic and self-critic way. “I’ve often thought of myself as a frustrated writer,” he explained, “I consider a word and an image of equal weight, and a lot of my work comes out of that kind of thinking.” (Artnet.com, 2020). He, in fact, shared Wittgenstein’s view of the existence of a common structure made of rules among games, art and language, that we must play along with (Postdlf.tripod.com, 2000). His humoristic attitude toward the system is well shown in his piece “best of 36 tries” in which he took and displayed 36 photographs purely because that was the standard number of shots on a roll of film. He does not, however, only play along with the rules, in fact, he really engages with them and eventually makes them so explicit that they become the essence of the work. An example of this can be found in his piece “Painting for Kuber”, where he gave the audience theoretical instructions on how to view the artwork.
In order to make his practice critical and ironic, John Baldessari always used culturally common imagery known by his public, mostly composed of people with a similar culture to his. The artist responded to these selected images, pointing out humoristic aspects of their known background and questioning it. The images that he used were so public that even if someone could not relate to them, the artwork could still be understood after the apprehension of the wider context it referred to. It may not be immediate, but, since the key to Badessari’s work have always been available to anyone, his artworks can be considered approachable to anybody.
A complete opposite approach to the key of the work is presented by joseph Beuys, whose whole life and art practice remain immersed in mystery from the moment in which he decided not to provide any sort of rules or guide towards the full comprehension of his artwork.
As a leading German Conceptual artist, Joseph Beuys was well known for his unique body of work, through which he would attempt to collapse the space between art and life, thus making it more democratic. There are many stories around his character, in addition to many controversial interpretations of his work and, at the present time, it is still unclear which ones can be considered real and what is indeed regarded as fiction. Beuys’s refusal to be understood in ordinary terms made the myths around his persona grow in the public imagery, so that some of them turned into actual fables. The artist himself believed that “a powerful myth contained more truths than everyday reality” (Nyartbeat.com, 2017) and, as a consequence, given the lack of information, people have attributed to these stories real meaning, turning them into statements. A clear example of this hyper activation that surrounds Beuys’s art practice is the myth about his survival after an airplane crash, which stands as explanation to the artist`s choice of materials: lard and felt.
Among the many assumptions and theories addressing the artist`s work, one of the most common depictions is the one that defines it as something that “radiates meaning, even as it absolutely resists logical explanation”(Laing, 2016) but actually, much of what Beuys had to say about his work has been described as “absurdly convoluted and self-aggrandising”(Laing, 2016).
Disregarding his choice of not providing a key to the viewers, people have continued to label his work and his intentions affirming that “by turning his injury into fable, Beuys make a clear statement of intent…” (Laing, 2016). Thus, regardless of how well informed and cultured these persons may be, these still remain just their speculations.
Everything around Beuys’ art practice is undefined and often misunderstood, but it seems clear that the artist does not aim for his work to be comprehended; as he once told to an interviewer, in fact, he thinks that ”there is a deep misunderstanding amongst people that art should be understood through logical sentences”. He believed that the use of a key was not essential to the artwork, because in his opinion “the work of art enters into the person and the person internalises the work of art as well” (Laing, 2016).
Therefore it is not the role of the artist or of the key to clarify the work of art, but it is the art piece itself that should engage with the audience.
There are a many different points of view regarding the relevance and necessity of a key for an artwork and there is no right or wrong approach to it as there is no right or wrong approach towards art. People should just try to engage with the art pieces with an open attitude and confront them without rushed or biased judgments. There is no race nor urgency in finding meanings to artworks. Each piece requires its own specific time and place to be understood, and some of them do not even have a hidden meaning that waits to be discovered. Whether or not to make the work of art explicit is an option and a choice of the artist and the viewers should respect it, without forcing meaning onto things that may seem undefined. This urgency for classifying and this craving for generality, which is generated because of “people’s tendency to look for something in common to all the entities” (Ara, 2006) is no good for art. Art does not necessarily need to communicate a message and its comprehension is not essential for its appreciation. Not all the artworks seek deep reflections or contemplation of some of the world’s problems, some of them just ask to be experienced and enjoyed in the moment. Sometimes it is better to leave the thinking behind and just focus on the energy and sensations that a piece of work can channel. Like Donald Miller once said, “most great art is created when the artists feel they are channelling something rather than trying to communicate something”.
Ara, R. (2006). Wittgenstein’s concept of language games. Al-Hikmat, [online] 26, pp.47-62.
Available at: http://pu.edu.pk/images/journal/phill/PDF-files/3Concept%20of%20Language%20-%20Roshan%20Ara.pdf
Postdlf.tripod.com. (2000). Artist Statements & Writings: on John Baldessari. [online]
Available at: http://postdlf.tripod.com/nonsense/writing/baldessari.html
Communication Theory. (2020). Attachment Theory. [online]
Available at: https://www.communicationtheory.org/attachment-theory/
Grant, S. (2017). How playing Wittgensteinian language-games can set us free – Sandy Grant | Aeon Ideas. [online] Aeon. Available at: https://aeon.co/ideas/how-playing-wittgensteinian-language-games-can-set-us-free
Artnet.com. (2020). John Baldessari | artnet. [online] Available at: http://www.artnet.com/artists/john-baldessari/
Nyartbeat.com. (2017). Joseph Beuys “Fat for Heat, Felt for Warmth”. [online]
Available at: http://www.nyartbeat.com/event/2017/3BF6
Laing, O. (2016). Fat, felt and a fall to Earth: the making and myths of Joseph Beuys. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/jan/30/fat-felt-fall-earth-making-and-myths-joseph-beuys
Mitchell, W. (1984). What Is an Image? New Literary History, 15(3), pp.503-537.