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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Clarifying Terms

I realize that I am using this word use in a very specific and pretty confusing way. I just don't happen to have a better word on hand for what I am trying to think about. So, some examples.

I've talked about what I intend by the word meaning in this posting and I've talking about what I intend by the word use over here. I have this notion that some examples might help.

Also, if you have an idea for words that might be more usefully deployed to carry these ideas, let me know!

Suppose I shoot an abstract photograph that invokes, for me, the sensation that I am glimpsing the very face of God. The meaning would be, for me, that sensation, that connection with the sublime. If I love the picture and hang it where I will see it every day, then that daily moment where I glance into the face of God, becomes the use of the picture. The picture is well used, I look at it daily, and get that emotional response. If, on the other hand, the picture terrifies me and I bury in the basement because I fear to look into the face of God, then the picture gets no use at all. It has exactly the same meaning but the use is nil.

A landscape which is particularly beautiful, perhaps a particularly striking sunset, might have the somewhat thin meaning boiling down to "my, how pretty" but that is nonetheless a meaning. Looking at it might well give pleasure every time. Hanging it over the couch, and looking at it from time to time is use.

A similar landscape, but without the striking beauty, might have almost no meaning. We might see it as a generic landscape, we might see it not as itself, really, but as a representative of a class of pictures. Hotel rooms are full of this stuff, quite deliberately. There is little to no meaning here, but if the colors are right and it really pulls the room together, and helps make the room feel beautiful, comfortable, warm, welcoming, then that it arguably a good use of the picture. It's getting looked at, and rewarding us for looking at it.

Of course more direct meaning is possible. A photograph can simply show us something new, or something that happened, as a piece of journalism or documentary. A photograph might be a little essay on the horrors of war.

More direct use is also possible and reasonable, a picture might illustrate a technical detail of a manual on auto repair, or might illustrate an article about an event in the newspaper. An even more direct use is simply to have sold the thing.

Perhaps an analogy will not further muddy the waters.

Among my skills is the ability to teach mathematics. This is something in me, something which is true about me. This might be in a sense analogous to meaning. I might also have a job, which might be in some sense analogous to use. The job might, or might not, be to teach mathematics.

As in my analogy, meaning and use may be entangled. If I have a job teaching mathematics, then my skills and my vocation are entangled and when I say 'I am a math teacher' it's not at all clear, or important really, which I mean. If my job is to break rocks, then when I say 'I am a math teacher' means something quite different. On the other hand, if my job is to teach something I know nothing about, perhaps I might say 'I am a sociology teacher', making a statement purely about what I am paid to do.

In the same way, the meaning of a picture, or any other piece of art, may or may not be entangled with or orthogonal too, the use to which that art is put.


  1. To say you overanalyze would be an understatement. Perhaps your goal of exactitude is a carryover from mathematics, but as far as I know words are more usefully employed as indicators of life in motion, i.e. experience, i.e. subjective and fluid. I've read a lot lately about intent, meaning, and responsibility as if it were a moral imperative, as if western civilization were in the balance. The simple answer to all that concern is that some artists work with intent, and some don't. We are the living entity unbounded
    and unsure, but in that is the risk of creating, not in adhering to cultural bias acting as law. Free yourself and stop assaulting the visual with the literal.

    1. Again, I do appreciate the time you're taking here, and alternate viewpoints are always welcome.

      It is perhaps worth noting, though, that writing about this stuff is working quite well for me. I'm taking pictures I am much happier with, now, than ever before. And that, ultimately, is my goal.