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Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Axes of "Meaning"

Something I have noticed and mentioned in the past is this idea of the "semiotically rich" photograph (or whatever, to be honest, it needn't be a photo.) What I mean is an object that seems to be loaded up with some sort of symbolic content, it's trying to mean something. It might or might not succeed in that goal.

Imagine, if you will, a photo of a beautiful flower lying on a wooden board, a still life. It's not trying very hard to mean anything, and it probably doesn't mean much of anything. It's pretty, and that's nice.

Now slice the flower cleanly across the blossom with a sharp knife. One clean stroke. Photograph that. You might even leave the knife in frame.

This photo is trying to mean something. There's the flower, beautiful and innocent, and it's been sundered! The blade gleams wickedly in the background. Good heavens! But what does it mean? Probably nothing, at least if it's shown to you without any specific context. This is what I have called a semiotically rich photo, it is freighted with meaning but doesn't actually explain itself at all. It is an enigma, fundamentally.

Now replace the flower with a crucifix, similarly hacked in two.

At this point the picture begins to explain itself, at least a little. A symbol for Christianity is chopped in two, surely this is some sort of comment on religion, or religiosity. We don't exactly have chapter and verse here, there remains a degree of enigma, but some sort of meaning is revealed here. The photo is semiotically rich and it also reveals itself.

I propose that there are in some useful sense two axes upon which a photo (or other art) can be placed. One is, roughly, how hard the object is trying to mean, and the other is how successfully it actually does mean. This suggests, of course, the photo that doesn't try very hard to mean, but which nevertheless carries a crystal clear message of some sort. I'm wrestling with that. Not sure it's a thing, and of course if it isn't, the model rather collapses.

This is mostly of note to me because it occurs to me that quite a bit of contemporary art is trying very hard to mean, but does not actually explain itself. You can see that the thing is semiotically rich, it's intensely trying to convey something, but what it's conveying is completely opaque. The little title card next to it will make all clear.

The sundered flower is, according to the title card, a symbol of lost youth, cut apart by age and yet still beautiful in a way.

Tomorrow, the flower might be a symbol for femininity, the knife a metaphor for rape.

The rich but empty artwork is remarkably flexible. The explanation usually can't be just any fool thing, it had to fit with the art, but there is some degree of flex here. If there isn't much flexibility, then more or less by definition the art is explaining itself, defying your efforts to explain it as something else. The art means all by itself without any help.

I have to say I don't much like rich-but-empty art very much, it feels like a bit of a cheat.


  1. when,totally on a whim, about 30 years ago I got my MFA when already a very 'mature' adult, no game away with the belief that in contemporary art the thing that mattered, the only thing that mattered, was the 'little title card' that went with the work.
    If one could convincingly explain why that black painted piece of 2x4, with the chewing gum stuck to it was Art Basel worthy, one was a serious and important artist!

  2. As an aside, I'm reminded of McLeish's advice, that a poem should not mean but be.
    It seems the axis orthogonal to 'intending to have meaning' shouldn't be the one you propose, i.e., success, since it seems pointless to measure the success of something unintended. Maybe some measure of transparency (as in, easy to jump into), or memorableness.
    And that 2x4 with the gum: what a moving statement of contemporary male sexuality! I await the artist's further explorations in this area.

    1. If these things would just "be" that would be fine with me! But they won't, there's invariably a little statement explaining it. Can you imagine a poem that came with explanatory notes? Phew!

    2. "Can you imagine a poem that came with explanatory notes?"
      I don't need to: The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot...

      Plus, of course, any scholarly edition of any dead poet's works. But, true, there is a major difference between text telling you what to think, and text explaining why something works (or used to work, when X was still a thing).


    3. e.e. cummings was asked, after a reading, what one particular poem meant. He replied, “You want me to say it worse?”.

    4. Robert Frost, not cummings, AFAIR? (Damn, I'm such a pedant...)