How Does Society Make Sense of Artwork?


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Oh, the joys of studying art. (Photo from Pinterest).

Be it by recognizing the visual and semiotic expressions art is making, or considering the historical and political landscape from which that artwork emerged, I think that viewers have developed effective methods for recognizing the social commentary going on within artwork. I also think we’ve done a pretty solid job at identifying those methods all semester long.

If you think about each of the three exhibits which we visited, we observed that there were a number of social themes which the paintings touched upon collectively. For instance, the artwork at the National Gallery exhibit all featured elements of 17th century Dutch society which Johannes Vermeer touched upon, as did the rest of his contemporaries. The Phillips Collection explored how mid-20th century American artists may have had Paul Klee on their minds, while the Hirshhorn exhibit demonstrated how artists have had wildly different means of interpreting the defining elements of the 1980’s.

In my opinion, cultures, communities, and academic circles are able to “make meaning” out of this artwork by identifying the common thread linking different works of this nature together, thereby recognizing what it is, exactly, that these artists are all commenting upon. By seeing painting after painting of women writing letters or wearing fancier clothes than their maids, we can conclude that social inequalities and the disruptive effect of war on Dutch society were two popular themes that many artists in that period had on their minds.

On top of that, it is important to read up on some of the historical context of the artwork, especially when the visual connections between the collections of paintings aren’t super obvious. That was the case of the other two exhibits we saw. It wasn’t always apparent in what ways the American artists at the Phillips Collection were influenced by Paul Klee; unlike at the Dutch exhibit, the visual similarities between the paintings in this one weren’t always apparent. Even the museum exhibit summary said that a lot of these artists didn’t even cite Klee as a direct influence.

However, thanks to the material we were assigned to read that week as well as Professor Irvine’s presentations, we gradually managed to pinpoint escapism as a common theme of the exhibit. The World War II era had been so dreary and destructive; these guys were looking for a way to build an alternative universe where they wouldn’t be troubled by such realities. All of the abstract paintings we saw there were the artists’ own response to that resolution.

This is another way how communities manage to interpret artwork: by placing it in conversation with the rest of the popular culture and political scene of its era. That’s why I’m glad something like the Google Art Project exists: it brings a lot of artwork from around the world together in such a conversation, and also provides some of the historical and cultural background that allows us to make better sense of how such works came to be.

Lastly, a key method for us to understand the meaning of art is to recognize important “semiotics” which they share. What important signs and symbols are included in these artworks? How do they add up to bring additional meaning to those pieces? We spent a lot of time earlier in the semester discussing that, and we saw it come across in the art that we studied later on. Obviously, Paul Klee had a lot of symbols (eyes, arrows, etc.) that popped up a lot in his work, as well as that of the other American artists whose work was paired next to his. And at the 1980’s exhibit at the Hirshhorn museum, symbolism was on constant display.

In the He Kills Me piece which I analyzed last week, the spirals placed repeatedly next to Reagan’s face were a symbol of death and doom– such fitting themes for the AIDS epidemic. All of the everyday products on display in the exhibit also had significance of their own: who new that uncooked pasta could have such strong semiotic value as a representation of the 1980’s-era mass consumerism and corporatism?

As is the case with any art form, identifying the hidden symbolism of paintings uncovers additional meaning for them. Seeing these paintings grouped together in a museum remains an effective way of interfacing art with audiences; as for art and media can be interfaced (the title of this course, after all) we’ve looked a lot at how the Internet and digital photography continues to influence the world of art and bring more and more pieces to audience attention. One of the questions we’ve been asked this week relates to “accepting inaccessibility.” I actually don’t feel like this is such a great concern any more: never before has artwork been so accessible en masse to audiences around the world. It’s been great getting to observe that trend all semester long as part of this course.