Friday, 24 October 2014


I am not convinced of the ability of any painting to communicate the complex intent of the maker/artist. I think any system of communication suffers an inherent loss of meaning when transmitted from the emitter (the one speaking/painting) to the receiver (the one listening/viewing). 

These losses are minimal in a language like mathematics and can be controlled in philosophy. When you come to poetry the gulf is growing, but I think that that next step to the language or languages of art creates untenable losses. When so much is unclear, it loses its ability to function as more than a sign, like the hand gestures used between drivers trying to communicate, which can so easily be misunderstood.

There are often miscommunications in everyday speech when trying to communicate about something very ordinary that might have happened that day. This becomes commonplace when we are trying to discuss more abstract ideas. You see it when there is a debate between two opposing parties on the news. They are arguing and accusing each other, but it seems that have completely missed the intent of their opponent and are, in a sense, talking past each other. Saying this, if we ask questions and are supplied with answers, we can generally work our way through to an understanding of the other person's view, if not an acceptance of it.

In the diagram that follows I have laid out the process by which I think that an artist's original idea/intent finds its new form in the mind of the viewer. This is not an attempt to analyse the whole viewing experience, but focuses only on the ability of a painting to communicate the particular intent of the artist. It therefore does not touch upon the pleasure that can be found in aesthetics or the purposeful empty spaces that can be included in art for the viewer to ‘occupy’. 

It is also worth noting that many of the stages I include are not necessarily experienced consciously. It can even be the case that the stages are missed out completely or repeated. My main focus for this study is painting, and if I refer to an object or art, it is within this context.

A - Artist
1 - The artist's intent – the specific meaning they wish to communicate
2 - The artist's idea – the image and/or the aesthetic elements that will communicate the intent 

3 - Filtering the idea
4 - Artist's cultural understanding/world view – consisting of smaller elements
5 - Turning the idea into an object
6 - The art object – built from elements of their world view framed by the artist's original idea
7 - Distance in both space and time between the artist and viewer
8 - The object's cultural elements seen by the viewer – note the intent is not visible to the viewer 

9 - Analysing the object according to the world view of the viewer
10 - The cultural understanding/world view of the viewer - note that it is built from different elements than the artist's
11 - Constructing an understanding of the artist's idea
12- The idea formed in the viewers mind - note the clear possibility here of a miscommunication 

13 - Taking a position on the artist's original intent
V - Viewer


(The following is a fuller explanation of the previous diagram and key:)

An artist has the intent to communicate something. This could be a general genre or field in which the artist works, be it the genre of landscapes or the field of gender.

In terms of painting they then have to imagine a physical way to communicate it – as in, the painting. This then will form itself into an image and representation, or maybe just an aesthetic approach such as a method of paint application in non-representational painting.

This idea might accurately reflect the artist's intent, yet it is not possible to exactly create it. As with language, there are limitations when turning this idea into an object. It must be put through the filter of the artist's cultural understanding and their particular world view.

The artist's cultural understanding is an understanding of what has been done and is being done within their field and the meanings of particular images within their culture. This could be understanding Warhol's and Richter's effect on the use of photography in painting, or that fuzzy black and white topographic images will be synonymous with aerial bombardment. This also includes an understanding of the medium they use, so how oil painting, photography or still life can be employed.

Secondly the artist's world view will reflect the positions they have taken. It will include their views on religion and politics as well as sexuality, age, gender and social status.

Using these elements the artist tries to create a painting that as closely as possible realises the idea they have formed in their mind. This results in the art object and the artist will put it out into the world if they deem it to accurately reflect that initial intent and idea. If it meets this criteria the artist will claim it as a success, and for them it will be very clear and obvious what they are communicating.

Next the painting leaves the artist. It travels the world and moves through time to reach the viewer who could be 40 years and a continent away.

What the viewer sees in the painting are the filtered elements the artist used in creating the object. The original intent and idea that the artist used as a framework for the painting are gone. The original context of the artist is lost when only the object is present. It would be like uncovering a lost collection of paintings by a pre-war Parisian art movement. The filtered elements of the art objects could be perceived but the intent and ideas might be lost.

What the viewer then does is to analyse these elements through the filter of their own cultural understanding and their personal world view. I believe it is at this point that miscommunication enters the equation. The filter of the viewer will constitute different elements than that of the artist. They may have a different political framework into which the work fits, or a different understanding of painted gestures.

The viewer will then form a picture of what they believe the artist's original idea was. In my diagram I have shown this as a shift from a pentagon to a hexagon. They will then go on to extrapolate a highly subjective meaning from the work which they will believe reflects the artist's original intent.

The possible level of communication will vary depending on the breadth of the artist's cultural understanding and their awareness of varying world views. The more aware and capable the artist is, the more specific and articulate the statements in their given medium can reliably be. 

The level of communication will also depend on the viewer having an equally broad understanding of cultural tropes, as well as their filter being close enough to that of the artist to understand their position. In theory, if the artist's filter and the viewer's filter were identical and the artist was capable of competently and completely employing their medium, then a great deal could be communicated. The flaw though is that as there are no definites, the viewing could easily be thrown off by a tiny misunderstanding at a basic level with no real recourse for correction.


Another way to look at this process of communication is through a comparison to written language. If I have a conversation with a friend, it will follow a similar process of intent, idea, phrase (instead of object), analysis and a comprehension of idea and meaning by the listener. There are, however, two additional and game changing factors involved.
1.A dictionary
2.The defining of terms

When you communicate in verbal or written English you can always fall back upon the good old OED if there is a disagreement over the meaning of a word. The dictionary can be referred to as a definitive answer.

If a word is not sufficient for a particular or new idea it can also be repurposed or redefined as a prerequisite to the conversation. When speaking about a complex subject I often hear or find myself saying, "what do you mean by 'such and such'?" or in a written piece of text you may read an author state that by ‘given term’ they will mean ‘repurposed definition’ for the remainder of the text. Of course, when this hasn’t happened, as with a philosopher like Kant you often hear, ‘it depends on your reading of him’. I am not claiming that there isn’t ambiguity in written or verbal communication, but I believe that meaning here is much more definite.

These two accompanying factors of a dictionary and the definition of terms do not really exist within painting. I will come back to artist statements, titles and manifestos later, but within painting itself there is no dictionary of terms. There are the general guidelines of art history and theory, but these are a loose framework at best and are also in an entirely different language.

Painting also seems to lack the capacity to redefine its terms through painting. Yes alluding to a new idea is possible but it also requires a verbal conversation to accompany it.

Then there are the difficulties in language construction. Words are always small units. They occasionally compound into new words, but you cannot arbitrarily take two words, put them together and expect someone to understand it. In painting you are continually compounding ideas and symbols and signifiers and that is an accepted means of using that language. If I combined opposing ideas and images in a painting that can often be a good thing, but in language it would be like combining the words good and bad and finishing it off with an ism to make:


I, the author of this new word, may have a clear intention and a strong idea as to the meaning of my new word, but it is simply meaningless to the reader until it is clearly defined. This would be unacceptable as a means of direct verbal or written communication.

Would it be possible to take these signs and symbols and make a dictionary? The problem I think is firstly that every element would need defining. Then each possible compound of elements would need a separate definition, and each compounded compound would then also require a definition and so on. It would end up as an exponentially long list making the unabridged OED look like a few scribbles on a napkin.

When I tried to work through this theory I found it produced some interesting practical outcomes. Most of the time I would have to accept that a painting on its own can only express ideas in very general terms, like in the initial illustration of hand gestures. Only deeply entrenched cultural ideas can be expressly communicated. Any new idea or new combination could not be immediately understood. If over time it comes to be defined, be that by a critic, a group of artists or a gallery/museum, then the idea would become part of that established cannon. But who could say that this definition is not utterly detached from the artist's original intent.


Painting rarely comes without some form of context. Be it the artist statement, the title, a review, an interview, a press release or a previous manifesto. If this theory of viewing is taken seriously it very much questions the art object in relation to these accompaniments.

If the desire of the artist is to communicate a very specific intent and idea, then the only way to do this is via the statement, as the painting does not have this facility. The statement is then the central structure for communication. The painting serves as a kind of illustration to this idea. 

Illustration is often badly used as a dismissive comparison in art, but I think that it can be a great compliment. It is hard to imagine gaining a clear understanding of a complex scientific theory without the aid of a diagram or illustration. The diagram serves as an invaluable guide to make sense of a multifaceted idea. It also has the ability to add a level of understanding and communication that the paragraphed text is unable to.

Therefore, when an artist states that their work is purposefully ambiguous I can't help but think that all paintings are inevitably ambiguous, at least up until the point where the widespread knowledge of its cultural context overtakes it, and to read it with the intent of the artist becomes second nature.

I think if you look back in art history this overtaking of context becomes apparent throughout. At the height of surrealism the most influential magazine produced was only distributed to one thousand readers. A very small influence for a truly international art movement. It only became part of that cannon later on. 

Looking at the history of the movement it strikes me that to start with a manifesto was written as a guide for the artists to work around. Only once that art movement became a part of art history did anyone care to thoroughly analyse the work, and what better way to do this than by use of the manifesto. The danger here is that the manifesto that the work reflects is also the definition of its success. It clouds the issue of reading a work by claiming the definitive view of the artist is the only pertinent interpretation.

I often come across statements such as, ‘my work questions’ or ‘my paintings ask the viewer’ and this is difficult, as the object itself has already been established to be a poor communicator. The artist might be asking that question of themself, they may even wish for the question to be asked of the viewer, but the object does not ask that question. It is ambivalent and disinterested in the question.

Another commonly used phrase is ‘my work researches.’ On an aesthetic, maybe even referential, level there is a logic to this, but again, the painting just doesn’t define and unearth new knowledge. The process of making may be an exploration of new ideas and methods of image construction, but the resultant painting is merely the unopenable binder in which the research is lain. 

Now I realise this is quite a narrow and academic view of the word 'research' and that it can be used to mean a much broader spectrum of learning, but then I find myself asking if it is the best word to use. It often appears to be used as a means of justification, paralleling the artist's process to that of the scientific model.

I think it may be very important to accept the limitations of communication in art/painting and also to see the potential in an exponential language that does not deal in definites but instead in innumerable lateral connections. 

It may also be important to reassess the values that are reflected in the formatting of artist statements and press releases to establish a language for communicating about painting that reflects the common framework that painting employs so that there is less frustration, disappointment and miscommunication.

Benjamin Bridges

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