Perhaps you have had a similar experience — you are sitting through an English or Art class and your classmates seem to intuitively grasp some deep meaning within a story of literature or work of art. Meanwhile, you are looking at the cover of the book or straining with a puzzled gaze at the work of art thinking, “Is there really some deeper meaning in all of this?”
Well, two teenagers in San Francisco decided to call BS on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this past month. Having walked through the exhibit of puzzling items that were cleverly displayed as “modern art” the teenagers “looked at it and we were like, ‘This is pretty easy. We could make this ourselves.’” The two teenagers found a blank wall with open space and decided to place a pair of eye glasses on the ground.
Rather than stand around to form the first crowd, the teenagers walked away to observe from a distance. Within three minutes museum patrons took note of the glasses and began openly admiring the work of “art” by taking pictures and launching into deep discussions about the meaning of life, beauty, and reality.
What Does This All Mean?
This incident illustrates many things. So allow me to be meta here and draw meaning from the act of people drawing meaning from something that was, by design, meant to be meaningless.
- This story illustrates the value of authorial intent when trying to interpret meaning. One of the best features of DVD movies is the director’s commentary audio. While sometimes laborious, hearing the director’s commentary helps viewers appreciate the whats and the whys behind a film’s construction. Often times, this can take a film from an enjoyable rental to a “I’ve got to own it” purchase.The reason that DVD commentaries, podcasts about book histories, and other historical methods appeal to consumers of art is that we want to know why we are interacting something. Every director of a film had a reason why he or she made the film Every painter had a reason why they were putting paint on a canvas. Every writer had a reason why they put pen to paper. Understanding an author’s intent is crucial in the appreciation of art in any form.This gets us back to the art mockery in the SFMoMA. The authors behind the glasses display had no intention or purpose in displaying the glasses on the floor. And yet, what they witnessed, in turn, was a group of patrons who were conditioned to pull meaning out of random and meaningless objects. Therein lies the humor and tragedy in the prank — a problematic feature of modernity — our culture is lacking the ability to locate authority and therefore lacking in the ability to interpret things in culturally helpful ways.
- This story illustrates the unfortunate prominence of group think. Many of us start reading a book or watching a film or listening to music because we are told by our culture that this artifact is worth exploring. What we don’t get from culture is why this artifact is worth exploring. The answer to the “why” question is closely related to authorial intent. The author will tell us what this meant to him or her. That first order meaning will then frame a context of exploration that allows us to determine what a particular art form means to us. But this process is far too complex for the commercial society in which we dwell. Marketers won’t spend too much time telling you why a song is good, they will just simply tell you that a song is good. The pitch is, “Just listen to it because it is good. Trust us.” And because some popular cultural figure agrees, it begins the process of group think where people perpetuate the messaging that the art is good without ever considering first order meaning or second order meaning. And this approach is quite successful from a monetary standpoint. However, at the end of the day this approach is just a monetized version of two teenagers placing glasses on the floor of the SFMoMA and laughing as patrons take pictures. And it is not ultimately helpful for cultivating a society that learns how to appreciate art.