Does subject dictate message in an artwork?

Cinnamon Soup’s question of the week is as follows:

    What do you consider to be more important, the subject matter of an art work or the message it conveys?

My response to that question, which touches on something that’s been in the back of my mind for the past few weeks anyway, is below:

    An artwork’s message is contingent to a large degree (but not entirely) on its subject, isn’t it? Then again, messages aren’t always received by viewers as artists intend, even in the case of realism.

    For years now ,clouds (mainly thunderstorms, but some more of the fluffly kind recently) have been a significant part of my inspiration and subject matter. When I’m crafting storms or clouds from clay or wood I have my own reasons and hopes for how a viewer will receive that message, but I’m fully aware that’s often not the case. People see whatever they want to in clouds — bunnies, ducks, firearms. In fact, we [Americans] expect to see things in clouds that aren’t there.

    And here I am creating fairly realistic sculptures of thunderstorms and fluffy cumulus clouds hoping the viewers see, at the outset, storms and clouds. This paradox intrigues me, and is, perhaps, itself becoming part of the subject matter in my sculptures the more I continue in this atmospheric vein.

Roughing out wooden storms

Adding: Thought this related to the question above:

    Art is not merely or even partly a “communication” of “messages.” It is not a visual illustration of a philosophy, idea, or sign. It is not a preformed idea that is wrapped up in artistic material that the viewer then unwraps to “get.” As I never tire of telling my students, art is a complex and tense hypostatic union of form and content; it is about its “howness” (form) as much as its “whatness” (content). There is nothing to unwrap. This is why art should not be “read,” “decoded,” or otherwise considered to be the sum of its constituent parts. It is to be experienced—contemplated and communed with, dwelt upon. This of course is dangerous, because an aesthetic experience can do unexpected things to you. And given our own differences in experience that the work of art engages, our responses to the work will be different.

From The Other Journal

About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

4 Responses to Does subject dictate message in an artwork?

  1. techne says:

    (i tried leaving this at cinnamonsoup but it didn’t take)

    i’d like a little clarification.

    is the question, “which is more important: the artist’s intention or the audience’s interpretation”?

    or is the question, “which is more important: the subject matter or the way in which it is conveyed” (i.e. the form, or the vehicle for delivery of the meaning)?

  2. jim janknegt says:

    Have you ever read Ben Shahn’s ” The Shape of Content” ? The form and content cannot be separated- The form is the content. He says it much better. It is one of my favorite books written by an artist about making art.

  3. Even though I tend to work in realistic, pretty straightforward subject matter, I don’t think that is necessarily the most important aspect of a work of art. Consider Classical Music. You could ask “Are the lyrics more important than the music itselt?” Classical music doesn’t have any lyrics. I know people who love “worship songs” because of the lyrics even though the music is terrible. But we don’t want worship songs with heretical lyrics, do we?

    I say BOTH. A great subject poorly sculpted is still a terrible sculpture.

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