Where does content in an artwork come from?

Image Journal featured artist John Frame in their last newsletter. Frame’s work is fascinating, and slightly disturbing, and in an interview he says a couple of things I felt the need to respond to in some form or fashion.

The subject matter of art can be anything that the artist chooses. The content however will always and only be who the artist has made him or herself into.

There is a lot of truth in this statement. I’ve said before, particularly when talking about painter Thomas Kinkade, that the subject matter of art is not something I’ll debate with an artist. I may not appreciate every subject, I may not be drawn into every subject, but subject matter is up to the artist. Frame’s point about content being separate from subject matter is not something that I’ve considered, at least not using those terms.

Subject: An object, scene, incident, etc., chosen by an artist for representation

Content: Something that is to be expressed through some medium, as speech, writing, or any of various arts

In general I think of the subject of a work of art as a tool for conveying what Dictionary.com suggests as the content (more commonly referred to, it seems to me, as the message or meaning). Frame’s comment about content seems to born out of Modernism, which commonly glorifies the individual. Curiously though, his observation seems somewhat aloof — if I can make this kind of judgment based such a brief video interview. For some reason, the comment comes across as academic more than personal.

This is an age-old debate really, one that is not a stranger to The Aesthetic Elevator. How much of the artist should come through in a work? Is serious artwork self-expressive or reserved? Is the content of a painting negated by the raucous lifestyle of of the painter?

We expect each artist to have his or her own style. We each work a little bit differently. We each respond to inspiration around us in our own way. Each artist has their own process. We each come from different roots that color our approaches, our choices on subject matter and so forth. Each artist has a different passion that will show up over time in their style. But is this, “who the artist has made him or herself into,” really what amounts to content, the meaning of a work? Frame talks about meaning a little later in the interview.

When people ask what the work is about, the real answer is that it isn’t about anything and that’s not to say that it’s meaningless rather than it carries its meaning in its own way and on its own terms. And I really think the only way to understand that meaning is by looking and letting go of thinking.

Again there is truth in what the artist says, but I can’t agree wholeheartedly. I’m not going to argue with an artist about whether or not there is intended meaning in a work. That’s for the artist alone to know, and share if he likes. Of course, content, meaning, comes through regardless of an artist’s intentions. I appreciate Frame’s emphasis on looking, but I’m not certain why letting go of thinking needs to be part of viewing art.

I do agree that our own roots, preconceptions, baggage as it were impede looking. If he means that we should let go of or carefully moderate these sometime hindrances while viewing a sculpture or painting I agree. If he’s suggesting that we should check our intellect at the door of the gallery, I disagree.

Still, it’s a good interview and fascinating interactive sculpture. Have a look.


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 pcNielsen.com.

2 Responses to Where does content in an artwork come from?

  1. sojournwanderer says:

    I’m not familiar with this artist beyond having read your post and watched the video. That said, I’d like to share how it came across to me because my take contrasts with yours.

    The subject/content (form/content?) comment was great. To me it felt like an attempt to express something for which one hasn’t quite found the words. I have the same problem all-but-constantly so it’s easy for me to pick up on flavor – not that I can put what he meant into any better words, but something resonates.

    Further to point to this, an anecdote: I saw a postcard of a work that my teacher made ten or fifteen years ago. It looks entirely different than anything I’ve seen of his, but I didn’t need to flip the card over; I knew the hand that made it. This, too, is an incomplete explanation, pointing at some truth.

    For me, “looking and letting go of thinking” is NOT about checking out, it’s literally just that… letting go of thinking. Of that compulsion to think, to process, to categorize, to compare, to undertake any of those operations we use in order to make sense of something that is new or strange, in order to make it known, to find how it fits with what is known. I found in the video simply an invitation to look, and to experience looking. Not to think at it too much or try to define it too much, but just kind of absorb it as it is. Sure, it’s fun to hammer away with associations and definitions and get this cloud of thoughts going on. But the thing is the thing; I understand what he meant by saying it has to be experienced on its own terms.

    One of the things I keep working on is to understand whatever-I-make as it is. Partly to be critical of it. Partly to get outside my own ideas and expectations and take a look at what I really ended up with. Let go of what I thought I was making at the time and figure out what I actually made. Encounter it from a position of otherness, without expectation or preconception.

    I have no idea if any of that will speak to anything among your experiences, but sometimes saying the same thing in different ways starts to paint a picture. I think the source of the differences in interpretation is because I’m listening for flavor and you’re being very exact. Not to say either is right or wrong or better or worse, they just take you different places.


    • pcNielsen says:

      With this I resonate: To me it felt like an attempt to express something for which one hasn’t quite found the words.

      I don’t know about the rest. In some ways I feel like I was playing the devil’s advocate with my response, perhaps because he hit on some things that I’m working through and just don’t know it.

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