The other day my friend told me about an incident witnessed by two people, one of whom saw meaning in the event, and the other of whom apparently found only an odd occurrence. A groomsman had fainted at his brother’s wedding. The question: was this caused by a virus and fatigue, or was it also caused by extreme distress over the brother’s marriage? My friend, who tends to look for meaning himself, wondered why the woman who saw nothing more than an odd occurrence caused by illness and lack of sleep was so afraid to look beneath the surface of the event and analyze what family anxiety lurked there. The answer to that musing could be that the woman didn’t think to look beneath the surface because, where some might have thought that there was something below a surface, she saw only a floor, a bottom under which there is nothing else, no subtext of family upheaval. We’ll never know for sure which person was right in this particular case; the person who looked for meaning underlying the event, or the person who never saw anything beneath the surface, let alone something with meaning hiding there. But, the story illustrates how easy it is for two people to have a complete misunderstanding based on their different approaches to meaning. It is the old story of two eye witnesses each telling the story of what just happened, but each with a plot completely unrecognizable to the other. So, how do we know when we are simply assigning, or making up, meaning to an event and when we are recognizing meaning that is innately there?
I am a person who sees meaning in events and things around me. When I make a piece of art whose subject is water, I have in mind a list of metaphors that the water implies. Some might look at my painting and think, hm- that’s a nice river, I’d really like to go swimming. But, in addition to admiring a river, I see water as a metaphor for the flow of life, for a pathway of smooth sailing and dangerous rapids. I see water as a metaphor for cleanliness. I see the water as life-giving. I can see water as dangerous and destructive; something to fear. I do not think that I’m discovering innate meaning in water. However, I do believe that there is an undercurrent (yet another word indicating a cultural reference to the meaning of water) of cultural meaning assigned to water. It has qualities that parallel our experiences in other ways. Some people think that assigning metaphor and meaning to things is mostly absurd and arbitrary. Others intuit meaning everywhere at all times. Most of us are somewhere between the extremes. I think that this is both the fascination with art, and also, the problem. People who don’t readily pick up on subtext are going to stare at a lot of art and be perplexed and bored. Others will look at art and see layers upon layers of meaning. (I love it when someone sees a meaning in my work that I hadn’t consciously intended, or that I never thought of.) People who make art without a lot of subtext in their work often produce work that is boring to viewers who tend to see below surfaces.
It would be wonderful if all students had the opportunity to study art to the point at which they reach some sort of competence at observing and drawing what there is to see, but, also, a competence at realizing that art has multiple levels of meaning. It is these levels that give a richness to culture, as well as something for the mind to dwell on and use to make new and important connections. We might not have to be like ships on the water passing in the night, each completely oblivious to the other’s existence. We might make connection, and triumph, rather than fail, at seeing another’s point of view.
Here is a powerful symbol in our culture, one that has been assigned meaning. This symbol has evolved from a bloody and cruel instrument of punishment devised by ancient Romans… into a piece of jewelry that often represents peace. But, I wonder if a cross has innate meaning, too? Long before the cross of the Christians, crosses were used by various people to represent the center of importance, the crucial spot. Even the word ‘crucial’ refers to a cross! It is hard to think about location or ideas without the concept of paths crossing. Maybe a cross, in addition to having a specific, assigned meaning, is also the locus of innate meaning for most any culture?