‘How, why, and what does the artwork do?

In the second part of this ongoing post we turn first to the apprehension of artwork and asking ‘How, why, and what does the artwork do?’ We can say the artwork sets up feelings through seeing, using non-verbal and non-sequential means, thus artwork connects with the mind and seems to stand for something.  This perceptual interpretation is direct and triggers sensory understanding which is difficult to relate verbally, as explained by Langer:

What is expressed cannot be grasped apart from the sensuous or poetic form that expresses it.  In a work of art we have the direct presentation of a feeling, not a sign that points to it.  A work of art does not point us to a meaning beyond its own presence.[1]

This quotation works to tells us that, analogous to the response to music or a melody, artwork can, by itself, stand alone generating a felt, non-verbal reaction.  Indeed, it is difficult to grasp words to explain the felt reaction.  One could question the point about it being a direct presentation of a feeling and whether it is actually best described as a device that triggers feeling directed by form, materials, and methods in making.  It could, therefore, be questioned whether on an internal basis, translation of the [felt] experience into words actually occurs, and how the use of words can only partially accomplish translation of the actual reaction.

Verbal explanation is fraught with misinterpretation – stepping out of the concrete, substantive, and measureable, language is an approximation, laden with subjectivity and given to soft, even vague explanations.  Verbal analogues of experience may be successfully achieved wholly, partially, or not at all due to the many variables in meaning and understanding within linguistics.  This sets up the idea that words or language cannot effectively relate the sensory experience.  During interview, one maker and writer (Barnett Newman) dismissed the importance of the use of language in the interpretation of his paintings ‘…it is full of meaning, but the meaning must come from the seeing, not from the talking’[2] i.e. the sensory response is the primary reaction and that this was of importance in making meaning.  This non-verbal understanding or connection is described by Solso ­as the deepest level of understanding and is ‘…as much about feeling as cognition – it is at the same time, a painting’s most direct meaning and its most obscure.  It is about being at one with the art; it is commingling a painting with universal properties of the mind; it is seeing one’s primal mind in a painting.’[3]  Prior to the development of the use words within language, were the properties of the mind able to connect at a deep level with the visual for communication, resulting in a drive for using visual images for expression.  And so, could the reason for making artwork stem from a [primal] pre-historic need to generate meaning or connection or with another person?

[1] Langer, Susanne, Problems of Art (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947) pp. 133-134

[2] Frontiers of Space, Interview with Dorothy Seckler 1962 in Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. by John P. O’Neill (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 251

[3] Solso, Robert, ‘Art and Schemata’, in The Psychology of Art and the Evolution of the Conscious Brain, (Massachusetts and London: The MIT Press, 2003), Chapter 8 pp. 223-264

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