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Modernism and Meaning

From a Forum topic named ‘Should the ‘meaning’ of a work of art be obvious’ I am including this post I made as it relates to the whole modernist issue.

A couple of issues interest me here. There was a time, let’s say medieval Europe, when the ‘meaning’ of a work of art was clear. Art’s function, in mainly religious, decorative or illustrative terms, meant that the audience, from that social context, would have no problem of understanding. Patrons saw to that cohesion through their wealth and power. These broad social, cultural and religious contexts have gone, and so has the ‘authorisation’ of the work by a central social body or hierarchy that speaks for the community and hence keeps art generally intelligible to all.
With the loss of these old ‘authorities’ and the development of ‘modern’ rationalism, science and new political ideas about individual freedom from oppression and authority, the audience of modern art finds itself in a very different relation to the artwork. If there are as many artistic responses to the same thing as there are individual artists to represent it, then it could be difficult for many people to quite understand what any one artist is advancing, particularly given that stylistic innovation, whereby the individual artist asserts his/her individuality, has become as important as ‘content’. So, we move from the medieval icon maker to Picasso to Damien Hirst (all different in content and style), and if we are to understand any of these new guys then we may have to recognise that art may no longer be so easy. It just might be in a foreign language!
Added to this is the crisis all modern artists face: what do modern artists think they have that is so worth communicating? If it’s just ‘feelings’, then OK. If it’s just someone’s point of view, then OK again. But when it comes to ‘MEANING’ we develop a whole new problem. In the 13th century meaning was not a problem, in a sense. There was a social, sociological and religious superstructure that established all that. Society had a certain cohesiveness (brutal as it may have been for many). And art served that. Nowadays, unless one is involved in the decorative arts, the ‘serious’ artist may turn out to be too difficult to understand because his actual audience could be much, much narrower than his potential audience. Cezanne was appreciated by only a few for much of his lifetime; his radical perception of how paint made him ‘difficult’ for some. Why? What he was doing was advancing something new, not just in terms of how to paint, but also offering a new theory of vision almost. Now you might ‘get’ all this when you look at a Cezanne, but maybe not. Again, why? Because you may not see art in the same terms or you don’t understand the terms of the debate.
Having said all that, I see no reason why anyone cannot understand any work within their own cultural milieu, with a little effort and aesthetic sensitivity. The problem today is that almost every artist attempts to create a milieu that is complete unto themselves – it seems to be a point of principle that we are original unto ourselves, and given that, also be ‘DIFFICULT’. At the same time, in the modern world, ‘meaning’ itself has become difficult. Science has seen to that, as has the loss of faith and a billion voices all saying very different things. Who’s to know? The artist? And if he does, how can we tell if the ‘stylistic’ language he uses isn’t one we quite grasp?
All the arts are difficult now. That’s the way it is. I know of no good modern poetry that hasn’t got the same dilemma……