The Artistic Science

Breaking the Bars of Science and Art

Archive for the category “Meaning”

See What I Mean?


This week we visited the sensational art gallery Compton Verney, a converted Georgian mansion situated in beautifully landscaped grounds, in pursuit of the answer to our question – Must art have meaning?

Our small group was comprised of a philosopher, an English student, a physicist and, at the head, an art historian. Boldly she led the way, leading us through the picturesque gardens and across a glistening river until eventually we reached the broad front of the house. With an eager kind of fascination she vanished within, leaving the remainder of us to tentatively cross the threshold one by one, all too aware of our lacking expertise in such a seemingly exclusive field.

Brightened River

A brief step and suddenly we were in a whole other world of exploding volcanoes, dancing demi-gods and bustling cities. Another step and we found ourselves below sneering kings and queens of old, shyly gazing up at the portraits of the people who shaped the world around them so dramatically. Then a shocking change as we encountered outsider art, where we saw artists expressing their thoughts and feelings in the most unconventional of ways. Finally, perhaps the most humble exhibit was that of folk art. Here artists advertised their wares and trades through paint, wood, stone and metal. Yet the question inevitably arose – What does this all mean?

After immersing oneself in such a menagerie of art it is impossible to deny that the artist is expressing something of themselves, often their most indescribable thoughts, through their medium. Whether it be a satirical comment about dentists or a vent of frustration about politics or just a longing for tranquillity, each artwork has its own message. This was epitomised for us in Salvator Rosa’s ‘The Baptist in the Wilderness’ and ‘The Baptism in the Jordan’, where the artist controversially de-centralises the objects of his painting and chooses instead to focus on the landscape behind. We are left pondering, does this reflect a desire to move away from Christ himself or is it in fact a rebellion against religiosity – choosing to point the onlooker to the rising sun, encapsulating the dawning of hope coming in the form of Christ? Is Rosa attempting to convey the meaning of the event rather than focusing on the shallow and somewhat inaccurate depiction of the physical which traditionalism values? Or is he simply abandoning religion altogether? Although the artist was clearly intentional in this act, it appears that the intention has been lost over the passage of time. Now we learn more about the observer from what they draw from the painting than what the artist was initially attempting to convey themselves.

Mirror brightened

This is both fascinating and distressing. On one hand it gives us a tool through which we can explore people, to bring to light our most hidden thoughts and feelings and to be able to express them to one another and even ourselves. Yet it means art is increasingly vulnerable to misinterpretation once the artist had died. So we have the objective meaning of an artist being expressed through their art and eroded by time into subjectivity. One can see this as positive or negative – what is most interesting is the artist who embraces this and, instead of attempting to instruct their audience directly, they seek to encourage the onlooker to raise questions and come to their own conclusions. The focus of this art is not so much on the answer we uncover, but on helping us to develop a habit of self-awareness and to cultivate the kind of curiosity and wonder which sparks creativity. Here the purpose of the art is not to say: ‘this is the correct answer’ but to insist: ‘one must ask the question’.

It seems that we now see that there is meaning to art, both conveyed by the artist and interpreted by the viewer. We see the benefits of self-exploration and thoughtfulness, but does this then mean that it is only the journey and not the destination that matters? Although the search for meaning is important is the importance of the meaning itself discounted? Hence the question remains – Does meaning matter?

Look out for our upcoming articles on this subject featuring interviews with artists, social experiments and a look at how artistic meaning shapes our culture.


Does Meaning Matter?

Question Mark PNG

Art and science have represented the uncomfortable compromise between subjectivity and objectivity in our society since time immemorial, but is this simply a misunderstanding of what art and science are? Surely if we want to practice artistic science we need a firmer grasp on the truth behind these matters, moreover we must know whether there is any truth behind them at all! So we must ask ourselves: “Does meaning matter?”

Science says yes. By definition science is the search for objective truth, so everything scientifically measurable can be assigned objective meaning; from fundamental physical principles to intrinsic properties of particles – objectivity is unavoidable in science. It is of utmost importance that the scientist understands the meaning behind their results and the implications for their research. One cannot afford to say meaning is subjective when trying to assess whether a bridge will stand or in diagnosing a disease and so, clearly, only the most ardent relativist would insist that science is subjective. Yet what about art?

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” as the old saying goes, but is it really true? Of course different people see beauty in varying ways – but are all views accurate? Or is there objective beauty beneath it all? I suggest both. Beauty is quantified by the message it conveys. For example, throughout most cultures there have been times where high body-fat is considered attractive due to the relative prosperity it implied. However in current western society, where adequate food supply is generally not a problem, obesity instead implies health issues and lack of fitness. Both views can be understood to be accurate in given situations and furthermore their motivations are objectively good – to prosper and to be healthy are intrinsically positive things. It would appear that the value of the ‘symptom’ is found in what it represents and not in the ‘symptom’ itself. So here we have subjective interpretation of what objective truth is being represented.

It seems that when it comes to assessing meaning for purpose, this meaning does matter and is objective. Nevertheless if we were to stop here we would be doing a major discredit to the subject. The big question is: “What about art for its own sake?” At first it would seem that art would of course be subjective, yet let us consider what art is. According to Aristotle “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”  The purpose of art is to express real meaning, albeit inexpressible by other means – so perhaps it is possible to misunderstand art. Is there actually underlying truth which holds regardless of the beholder’s view? Does this mean art could be just as objective as science?

Over the coming weeks we will be investigating this further, through interviews with artists, social experiments and a deeper look at the importance of meaning. Please feel free to comment below and let us know what you think – Does meaning really matter?

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