The meaning of art

I’m continuing my reading of David Byrne’s “How Music Works” and find myself in an interesting section discussing amateur art. He runs down a lot of theories past and present about what makes art “good” (always a lively debate.) At one point Byrne quotes the views of English author John Carey who said, “Meanings are not inherent in objects. They are supplied by those who interpret them.” Carey’s fundamental point is that high art was considered high because the elite class says so, not that these forms or art have some built in magic.

And I generally agree with that; I would have strongly agreed with that a few years ago (though I reject the sort of punk rock/populist counter argument that “street level” art is great merely because it’s not high art.) But are objects totally without meanings? I’m not sure I buy that. I’m reminded of neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran who argues that the brain seems to associate reactions to certain types of objects. For example, a big spiky sculpture made of steel can’t help but seem fearsome. A painting of pillows can’t help but seem safe. If you want to call those reactions “meanings” (and when you think about it, the exact meaning of the word meaning is rather ethereal) then objects do have meanings in so much as these reactions seem built into the brain. We could revive the whole tabula rasa debate and question whether you’re born with a fear of spiky objects or rather it’s something that gets built in early on, but it probably doesn’t matter much.

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