Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Art and meaning

Art is a private matter; the artist does it for himself; any work of art that can be understood is the product of a journalist.
from The Dada Manifesto
That idea, popular with so many early in the last century, gets much less support today. Even so, many do believe that art cannot be easy. If too many people understand it, it must not be any good. Perhaps isn't even art at all. Thus, in the world of painting, the likes of Norman Rockwell and Thomas Kinkade get very little credit. In literature, Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch must not be much of a novel because it was a best-seller for so long earlier this year. The fact that many people were never able to finish reading the book they paid $30 for doesn't mitigate the fact that so many others read it and loved it. Popularity lessens artistic value in the eyes of elitists.
My own view is that true art means different things to different people. The best art has an entry level meaning assessable to just about anyone. This is nothing more than simple beauty. A beautiful painting or a beautiful piece of music or a beautifully written novel needs nothing more to justify its existence. If the masses enjoy it, that takes nothing away from it as a work of art.
At the same time, the best art has other levels of understanding that open up to those who may be more perceptive, more intelligent or more experienced. Each reader or observer may find something different. Scholars continue to find new meaning in the works of writers like Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, which were popular with the masses at the time they were written. Much of this meaning may have never been intended by the authors themselves, which means not that the meaning is false but that these novels are true works of art.
The test for The Goldfinch, or any other novel, lies not in how many people bought it or read it or loved it, but rather in how many different levels of meaning will be found, over time, within its pages. The same is true with any work of art.

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