Outside Meaning.

This essay is an attempt to work through some of the problems arising from recent artworks in which the acquisition of specific information not contained in the work itself, nor to be confused with context more generally, is required on the part of the observer in order for the work to have its desired effect. It is a work in progress, so comments welcome.


Van Gogh

In John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing (1972), Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows (1890) is reproduced. The reader is asked to look at the picture, then turn the page. On the next page we are informed that ‘this was the last painting Van Gogh made before he killed himself’ 1 Although Berger resists spelling out what he thinks the conclusions are that the statement invites the reader to draw, one obvious response would be  to see the marks in the painting as expressive, tortured, thence to link them to the artist’s corresponding mental state, specifically, to retrospectively imbue the work with a particular pathos.

Thus, an artwork is reduced in at least two respects. Firstly, to its function as a direct expression of the artist’s mental state, whatever that means, given one is invited to see paint marks as being in some way synonymous with an expressive of a mental state 2. Secondly, as Berger asserts:  ‘It is hard to define exactly how the words have changed the image but undoubtedly they have. The image now illustrates the sentence.‘ (Berger, ibid, p 28, my emphasis)

These reductive moves are made at the expense of a formal analysis in terms of how the brush marks might be understood for the way they fracture or rhythmically consolidate the picture plane in tension with the representational space, aspects that the viewer would need to work out for her/himself, insofar as an explanation of such wouldn’t necessarily make this evident to the viewer. However what concerns me here is not the expressionist fallacy per se, but the process by which extraneous information that has nothing to do with the image in itself, nor is even contextually relevant, is used, in effect, to prop up a work –the work comes to be judged insufficient on its own, and on its own terms: the viewer must be guided to the desired reading. In terms of painting and Van Gogh’s status within its history, it’s the innovations in the handling of paint, the rendering of space, movement, rhythm and colour relations that should really matter.

We are all familiar with the trend for explanatory wall texts in galleries that aim to nudge the viewer into a way of understanding a work, if not explicitly explaining it for them. However, this practice, though pre-emptive, has never been strictly necessary, as long as it has been possible for the viewer to understand a work, assuming a familiarity with its broader context and the language with which it is working. In the examples discussed here, however, contingent information, extraneous to the work and not in any way in it or part of it, is required not only to understand it, but to feel an impact that is wholly dependent on that information to stimulate, if not force, a specific response by providing a story about a pathetic or tragic event to which the work is itself a response.


Ai Weiwei

In Ai Wei Wei’s sculpture: Straight (2008-12), hundreds of straightened-out steel reinforcing rods – ‘rebar’- from a collapsed school building are laid in piles on the floor in a ground-hugging, undulating form3. The immediate echo might be of Carl Andre’s works, though Straight is contrastingly curvy and asymmetric. On the surrounding walls are the names of 5000 schoolchildren who perished when the building was struck in an earthquake. Ai Wei Wei has said that his art and politics can’t be disentangled and that Straight is a memorial to the dead children. However, if it is indeed a memorial, can it be a work of art, given the instrumental, didactic function of memorials, regardless of their aesthetic merits? If the work is to be understood as art, then it must surely first be evaluated according to sculptural criteria, via a critical engagement on the part of the viewer: how does it stand aesthetically, as a more or less generic minimalist floor-piece -an arrangement of multiple units of found industrial materials- compared to earlier and current examples? If this is a fair way to approach the work, where does that leave the children’s names on the wall? Are they part of the work in its non-monumental sense? If so, then how are the two related, but if not, what is their purpose?

The issue that concerns me here is the way contingent information is necessary in order to grasp the significance of the work, to feel its impact, indeed, insofar as the origins of the rebar and the circumstances that prompted the work’s creation overwhelm it, one is implicitly discouraged from seeing it in formal terms as sculpture. In this sense there’s an implication that to see it principally as aesthetic is to fail to respond appropriately, so that one’s response may be judged to be less than human. In the case of Straight, it is presumably the poignancy, the melancholic aura, with which the work is imbued, in the knowledge that the rebar was salvaged from the school, disentangled from the young bodies buried with it: empathy trumps aesthetic evaluation. But why, then, have the bars been straightened out? If the work is intended to confront the viewer with the hard reality of the rebar’s origins, why not leave it, forensically, in the state in which it was found?4 Perhaps, the straightening-out functions as a metaphor for the Chinese authorities’ attempts to ‘straighten out’ the aftermath of the event by, for example, refusing to release the names of the dead children. But such a metaphor adds little in any respect, since the response was well documented, and in the same way, the metaphor is also reductive, if all it is intended to do is function as a one-line critique of the Chinese authorities’ response to the tragedy. Art is not a good way of doing politics, but if there is a politics in / of art, it lies in its refusal to function as illustration or in service to pre-existing non-art ideas. Rather it is the resistance art creates to easy understanding, and hence assimilation, that marks its potential political function: we are encouraged to struggle with thoughts and ideas and to raise those struggles to a political principle.


Willis Thompson

Another more recent example is the films of Luke Willis Thompson, shown as part of his Turner Prize 2018 exhibit; Autoportrait (2017), Cemetery of Uniforms, and Liveries (2016). Autoportrait shows the face of Diamond Reynolds, who broadcast live on Facebook the moments after her boyfriend, Philando Castile, was fatally shot by police in Minnesota in 2016. Cemetery of Uniforms shows Brandon, the grandson of Cherry Groce, who was shot by police in her Brixton home in 1985, and Liveries shows Graeme, the son of Joy Gardner, who died in police custody in 1993. However, none of this information is in the work.

The three silent movies were shot on black and white 35mm film and closely resemble the Screen Tests Andy Warhol made between 1963 and ’66 (Warhol, whose influence Willis Thompson has acknowledged, used 16mm). In other words, the images contain very little movement and are silent, lasting around three to four minutes each. Insofar as they are simply portraits of what would otherwise be anonymous figures, there’s no way of knowing these people’s life stories except by reading about them. Clearly, the artist intends us to look at these films with the foreknowledge acquired from the explanatory panels at the entrance to the projection space, indeed this knowledge is essential to his intentions for the work, though it is presented as supplementary, in the form of text.

These texts resemble the familiar explanatory panels seen in galleries, except that here the information provides not general context or suggested interpretations, but  specific information about the film’s subjects, without which the work wouldn’t function at all as the artist intended, nor therefore have its desired impact on the viewer. The effect of this strategy is to remove agency from the viewer by interpreting the work for them, thereby denying them the hermeneutic activity that is  fundamental to the experiencing of artworks, while simultaneously reducing them to an  illustrative adjunct. Affect is reduced to being the transfer of information from speaker to listener, in conformity with classic information theory5. Unlike in Berger’s example, however, the films here don’t even illustrate anything, for what would be illustrated? At best one could argue that it’s possible somehow to read-off anguish from the faces of the subjects, but how would one know one was not simply imputing a correlation between facial expressions and inner feelings under the influence of the fore-knowledge acquired at the entrance?  Nevertheless, as with the example of Ai Weiwei, the viewer is similarly directed to respond in a specific way, with the implication that not to do so would suggest a pathological inability to empathise on their part. This coercive effect, and the denial of the viewer’s agency,  is mirrored in the way Willis-Thompson speaks for his subjects, as J J Charlesworth has pointed out: ‘ventriloquising the histories of others to make a political statement goes against the agency of those for whom one attempts to speak.6

In contrast, any knowledge of the sitters in Warhol’s Screen Tests, while informative, is inessential, because the films are about the influence of the shooting conditions on the sitter: the way they negotiate their relationship with the camera, as opposed to their biographies. And in so far as the viewer is confronted with the baldness of the screen test films, we are also implicated in the conditions of the work. The backstories presented with Thompson’s subjects sidesteps the taut relationship between film and viewer that Warhol conjures, but then again without the backstory there’s nothing to it but a Warhol aesthetic plus massive, irrelevant loopers.

We are invited to invest the image with a specific significance that it doesn’t otherwise have. But the image hasn’t changed: it’s the same with or without the information about its subject, therefore the invitation is to read into it something that is not evidently there, in the process of which we surrender ourselves to the manipulations of the artist, our responses over-ridden by the knowledge of the circumstances of the subjects’ lives. What exactly is it that the artist is trying to elicit, and how does that relate to the images? It is as if the films are reduced to illustrations of the contingent facts about them, except that they don’t illustrate anything: they are simply portraits of people. Concomitantly, our response is reduced to an emotional reaction to the circumstances of the subjects’ lives: what else is left, after all, for us to take from the work?

It could be that the work is about photographic meaning, or rather its notorious lack thereof, though this wouldn’t be an original contribution to that debate. One could argue that these films, their context and status as art aside, are no different in themselves from the ‘middle brow art’ practised by amateurs and analysed by Pierre Bourdieu in his book on the subject7 If it were so, why has the artist chosen exclusively black subjects to work with? Perhaps he wants to show solidarity with oppressed minorities, but this fact, combined with the knowledge about them, overrides the viewer’s response, all but eliminating their ability to respond in their own way to the work. In this sense the work isn’t art, it’s a form of very weak documentary, but the artist is too coy to call a spade a spade, to identify himself as really a campaigner, since this could have consequences for his career. In a broader sense there is a problem with artists making careers out of political posturing: posturing because if they were honest they would abandon their art career and re-invent themselves as activists, doing real political work in an arena where it might have some traction. The irony is that in reducing the desired response to the films in this way, the artist is denying his own work any potential complexity or subtlety it might have: he’s shooting himself in the foot. As if conscious of the post-colonialist issues raised by the white artist wanting to ‘help’ his black subjects, Willis-Thompson met and discussed the project with Diamond Reynolds in order to secure her co-operation, but insofar as the project remains his work and property, this merely pushes the problem back without resolving it.



In Alfredo Jaar’s photograph The Eyes of Gutete Emerita (1996), a photo of a woman’s eyes, there is an attempt to get the viewer to put themselves in the place of the subject and to imagine, assuming it’s even possible, the experience the woman actually lived through, of witnessing the hacking to death of her husband and two sons during the Rwanda massacres. In this respect the work offers a challenge on the power and limits of the imagination, connecting it to the debates around the unrepresentability of such occurrences, paradigmatically, the Holocaust. Nevertheless, in the sense in which it seems to suggest that trauma or any other kind of emotional state can be read off the image, it is problematic. As an image it is simply a photograph of eyes, and, as with Willis-Thompson’s films, we are asked somehow to see something in the image that isn’t really there. The suggestion seems to be that the witnessing of the events is somehow recorded in the image of the eyes and legible as such, but how can this be? Alternatively, it could be seen as a critique of the limits of representability, but this seems unlikely: why would an artist choose a specific, highly traumatic event to photograph to mount a conceptual work about the limits and possibiities of meaning in  photographs?The distinguishing feature of art is that the viewer must struggle to make sense of the work as it is. The more he/she is guided to a pre-determined response, the less like art it is. Why do artists feel they have to illustrate or even respond to political events by making artworks about them? While there is of course a venerable history of this, we don’t for example, appreciate Goya’s 3rd of May 1808 mainly for what it depicts, but for his skill as a painter in handling a traumatic subject. While the work is charged by the subject it doesn’t stand or fall on account of it and, from the point of view of this essay, explanatory texts are not required to provide information that is not in the work and hence not a part of it. Of course, it would be equally reductive to talk only about the aesthetic value of Goya’s paintings, or Turner’s The Slave Ship (1840), his dramatic painting of sick slaves being thrown overboard to their deaths, but the difference between the these works and the ones discussed above is that the subject is inscribed in the work, so although it could be said to be illustrative on one level, there is an abundant wealth and complexity in the way subject and handling are intertwined.


1.John Berger: Ways of Seeing, Penguin Books, 1972, pp 27-28. (While one of his last, it almost certainly isn’t the last painting he made).

2.See Hal Foster: ‘The Expressive Fallacy’, in Recodings, Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics, Seattle, Washington: Bay Press, 1985, for a critique of the idea that expressionist art offers a uniquely unmediated access to the artist’s intentions.

3. Straight was shown at the Royal Academy in 2015 as part of a survey of Wei Wei’s work.

4. I am grateful to Amy Dickson for this observation.

5. See Claude Shannon: A Mathematical Theory of Communication, Bell System Technical Journal, 1948, pp 379-423.

6. J J Charlesworth, ‘Turner Prize 2018’, Art Review, Jan-Feb 2019.

7. Pierre Bourdieu, 1996. Photography, A Middle Brow Art, Polity press.



5 thoughts on “Outside Meaning.

  1. I was looking at a painting by Lee Krasner in Tate Modern’s permanent Studio display at the weekend. The label somehow manages to justify mentioning she was you know who’s wife by telling us that he had just died and she was grief ridden. Did they say that as a way of mentioning him? Or because I must know about her grief to look at the painting properly? Good article.

  2. Well said and put, Nicky. Confusion between what’s in a work and what isn’t, and between what can genuinely be said about a work and the ways in which the maker might attempt to justify it, seems to be growing exponentially!

  3. One can in part blame Duchamp with his giving a “new thought for that object” and then conceptualism in general for helping transform the gallery from exhibition space into a meaning generating device. As you say so often what meaning there is exists not in the work but in the accompanying text, or hovers ill-defined as one stares blankly at something which otherwise would go unremarked upon. In the case of Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds was this a commentary on the Chinese mass production or on pleasant but pointless gallery installations. It was framed as the former but could equally be the latter. For such pieces to ‘work’ arguably there needs to be a tension between the idea and the visual execution. To borrow from Rudolf Arnheim’s ideas around art practice as a realisation of visual thinking the work should have something in its arrangement or dynamic that contains or reflects the essence of the idea. It is quite lazy to fall back on a minimalist presentation as the visual trope hoping that it can act as a self sufficient container for the idea on the wall. Though I’m sure I have made that mistake more than once.

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