Aug 252008

Paul Butzi recently wrote about the sources of meaning in photography. He was inspired by a comment Seth Glassman made about another of Paul’s posts, that one inspired by a third post on Doug Stockdale’s blog (don’t you love the blogoshere?).

Paul is mostly concerned with the fact that, while it is difficult to give a single photograph precise meaning, a series of photographs condenses and focuses meaning, and the more so, the longer the series. This is quite obvious but important to keep in mind.

One side topic were the sources of meaning, and Paul writes

But I still think that the meaning was in the scene before I photographed it, would have been in the scene even if I hadn’t strolled along, and was not placed there by me.

which finally was the reason for me to chime in. In a comment I already wrote

I think it’s fundamental to note that the whole concept of meaning does not make sense without communication, even if the communication is only between you and yourself. Meaning is either shared meaning or it is not at all, and when you think about it, that has quite a tail of consequences, e.g. that meaning can’t simply reside in configurations of objects. It needs a thinking mind.

and that’s exactly where we need to go into some depth today.

What is “meaning”? Does a stone or a tree mean something? Does a book or an image? And if they meant something, to whom would they mean it? To me? To you? To everybody? And if so, would they mean the same to everyone? And if so, why? Or if not, why not?

Let’s begin with some observations. Some days ago we had the matter of women wearing headscarves, centered around an image of a most probably Turkish woman. While looking up the correct term on Leo, I came upon a (german) discussion in their forum, where a fellow Austrian mentioned, that in his youth (whenever this was) in Burgenland, the most eastern province of Austria, neighboring Hungary, married women were more or less required to wear a headscarf. The way he says this makes clear that it is not the case any more. Thus we can say that the headscarf, worn by a woman at that time in that place, carried the designation “married”, and I guess nobody will object when I call this a “meaning”.

Let’s look into that further. A headscarf is a piece of cloth. They come in all sizes, colors and designs. The same piece of cloth, not worn by anyone, certainly does not carry any designation at all, it does not mean a thing. But even in that particular configuration the meaning is local to a place and with time it has changed or vanished. If you ask me, these facts don’t portend well for a concept of “meaning” that’s inherent to objects or even configurations of objects. Thus, from now on, I take it as given, that “meaning” is assigned.

There is more to learn from this example. Upon first thought it would seem that at least there and then this meaning has been universal. Everybody seems to have known it, but even that is only correct for members of that very culture. Someone from, say, the US would not necessarily have “got” this meaning, at least not without having been told at least once.

Now, this is important: meaning is not universal, but it can be shared, and this is done via communication.

Is meaning shared easily? Does shared meaning automatically mean equal meaning? Even that is not the case, and you see it at once when you just have a look at Ted Byrne’s comments to “677 – A Stranger In Town“. We talk about “left” and “right” as political concepts, but it becomes instantly clear that Ted and I “mean” different things by that. We are certainly able to communicate, and with some exchange we can easily adjust our meanings, at least temporarily, to meet at common ground, but this is not instant at all. We share the exact symbols but only approximate meanings.

To me this again hints strongly at the individual human mind as the source of all meaning.

What does all this mean for art, and there especially for photography? Is it a problem that meaning is always subjective, and that even in a rigidly defined system like a language (well, it’s not math, but certainly much more precise than photography, right?), even in such a system, meaning is neither automatically available nor instantly shared? Does this take away from our expressive power? Does art suffer from vaguely defined meaning?

I believe it does not. Let’s again look at an example. This time it is one of the most ugly pieces of architecture in Vienna, a so called “Flakturm”, meaning a massive tower built during WWII as a base for anti-aircraft artillery. Vienna has six of them, and because they were built to withstand all allied bombardments, they are practically impossible to get rid of. Now, one of them, the one in Esterhazy Park in Vienna’s 6th district, has been used by the American concept artist Lawrence Weiner for an art installation. It was painted white at the top, lit at nights, and it carries the monumental inscription “Smashed to pieces (in the still of the night)”.

Weiner’s installation is certainly recognized as art. Let’s look at the most important part of it, the only one that has survived and is easy to see for everyone, the inscription. Ask anybody on the street what that is, up on the tower. You will most likely get “Art” as an answer. Depending on the person it may come with a derisive smirk, but nevertheless the art aspect is generally recognized and agreed upon. Why? And what is the exact meaning of this installation? Is there such a beast at all?

Let’s look at the text itself. There is a strong tension between the concepts of “smashed” (which implies noise) and “still of the night” (which does not). This tension is what we feel as surreal, and surreal means there is no obvious, inherent meaning at all. Neither of the two fragments of this text is surreal, both could be said to have meaning, but the combination is surreal and in that surrealism it is void of meaning. It’s easy to see that just that property makes it art in the first place. It is art because it is ambivalent. It is art because it can work as a receptacle for all kinds of meanings that we like to project on it.

In the end it does not seem to be a problem that we photographers have trouble forcing our images to have an exact and universally shared meaning. Much more than a weakness, it seems to be a strength. Ar
t’s power lies in ambivalence. There is nothing to worry about.

The Song of the Day is my only one with the word “meaning” in its title. It is “The Meaning Of Life” from the Monty Python film of the same name, available with lots of other famous songs on “Monty Python Sings“. Hear it in the intro to the movie on YouTube.