It's virtually a commonplace or incontrovertible given that a certain canon of great art deserves our attention, indeed "reverence" to the exclusion of so-called lesser creations. For many of us, such examples as Michelangelo's "David" and Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" would be at the very top of any list. But what exactly is the basis/origin of the worth we ascribe to a work of art?
I consider myself in the mainstream of traditional aesthetic theory when stating that the full meaning and value of a work of art derives from both (1) innate elements in it and (2) the perceiver's "lens" of experience and cultural context through which one views it. [Oh yes, I am aware of fringe "-isms" such as deconstructionism and nihilism that question, even denigrate, traditional views, but those perspectives are not my focus here.]
Anyone adventurous enough to "take on" this topic of artistic meaning risks striking a pompous pose as a sophisticated cosmopolitan speaking ex cathedra to the masses. This is my disclaimer that I have no such illusions and hence no such intentions in this blog.
That said, my starting premise is that any perceiver (of art or anything else) brings a frame of reference or kind of filter to whatever he/she perceives. To cite two contrasting examples concerning the "Mona Lisa," an art critic and historian, on the one hand, while looking at this painting, will filter whatever discrete bits of information he/she "sees" in it through his vast knowledge bank of aesthetics (art theory), elements/skills of painting, cultural/historical contexts and even elaborate philosophic systems such as classicism; whereas an uneducated backwoods country boy (which I once was), unless given to visions and mystical "imaginings" like those of William Blake, would likely "see" little more than a motherly or feminine-looking figure. His more limited understandings would be considered by some, though, to be provincial and naive. Given that reality and my own past experience as such a boy, I would be the last, however, to disparage or discount the "worth" of his judgments and, rather, would be inclined to label them neutrally "different" or possibly "untutored."
There is a countervailing view that the boy's simpler assessment, if given credence, somehow also diminishes the work of art itself or even the age/culture in which it was created. To that argument, I would simply say that a painting is an artifact existing INDEPENDENT of perception and any values ascribed to it by perceivers. Thus, the different perceptiuons of the backwoods boy and the art critic do not affect the "being" or innate nature of the artifact itself. Moreover, as an art object, it has its separate entity (existence) that is static or unchanging (aside from physical deterioration). I will readily grant, though, that what a perceiver (or whole cultural context) brings to a work of art is commonly viewed as being part of the total meaning and value of it.
As another way of viewing this entire issue of perception vs. reality, let's descend from the lofty realms of "high art" to popular culture, as exemplified in Andrew Lloyd Webber's song "With One Look." One main point of the song's lyrics is that images, alone, in the old silent movies could communicate everything necessary for one's understanding: "We didn't need words; we had FACES" (italics mine). But the effectiveness of "one look" in communicating an attitude (or any meaning) depends on commonly understood cultural associations with particular facial expressions and other body language. Today, even in our more multi-cultural world, there are risks of misunderstandings when a less familiar culture is involved. I understand, for example, that is some cultures, holding the hand vertically in front of one actually signals a meaning of "come closer" whereas in our culture that same gesture means "stay back."
Without additional context, to me, the facial expression and pose in the "Mona Lisa" are enigmatic and ambiguous, making any judgments about them highly speculative. If a cartoon "bubble" floated above her head for inserting her thoughts, I would be almost completely at a loss for composing an appropriate response. [Numerous flippant or comedic ones come to mind, of course.]
Aside from these ambiguities, the whole point of the "one look" theme in Webber's song is how emotionally powerful facial expressions are not only in the movies but also more broadly in human relationships: "With one smile, I'm the girl next door or the love you've hungered for...With one look, you'll know all you need to know." With adequate context, clear and unmistakable meanings/messages are signaled. I'm sure all of us have had that unforgettable experience. It's as memorable, indeed life-changing, as what psychologists call "imprinting" because it stays with one forever. In that respect, the experience is very much like that of viewing a great work of art like the sculpture of David or the "Mona Lisa" portrait. They remain with us always and are near, as the poet would say.
Causes Brenden Allen Supports