The story appears on

Page A3

June 22, 2024

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Opinion

Should art explain itself?

What’s the point of art? And more to the point, should art explain itself?

I was on the panel for a mental health-meets-art event called Canvas of Emotions. It’s a creative concept, and proceeds go toward subsidized counseling with Community Center Shanghai. My role as a panelist was to ask questions to artists and suss what their artworks were about. It got me thinking.

We’ve all stood in a gallery looking up at some masterpiece feeling lost. But because we’re dignified creatures, we don’t admit this. We tilt our heads, stare long enough to appear engaged, and then wander off bemused. Would we benefit from being told what art was about? And where should the line between explanation and interpretation be drawn?

I chatted with Ben Growden, founder of The Kulture Space and curator of Canvas of Emotions. An artist himself, to Ben it’s OK for people to interpret art how they want, but they won’t always know what it’s about.

“It’s like a TV program. If I watch the first episode and it doesn’t connect, then how can I watch the rest of the series,” Ben said.

For Paul, also an artist, personal interpretation is more important. “Whatever feelings a piece of art arouses in you can’t be wrong. Whether it matches the artists intentions or not, feelings are instinctive. If you need to be told how to feel, then the art isn’t working.”

Meanwhile, Eason, an art enthusiast and counselor, believes that both the artist and the audience are equally important.

“Art is personal and also a form of expression which can transcend time and space,” he said, “speaking heart to heart.”

So, I questioned myself. If something is lost in the reveal, why am I part of a series of events aiming to unravel what artwork is about? Canvas of Emotions is special. The room was filled with a collective desire to know more about the artists and their work. Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to question the experiences, techniques, choices and motivations of a creative? Can you honestly say that given the opportunity to dig around in the minds of Banksy, Hurst, Emin, Picasso or Van Gogh, you wouldn’t? While interpretation is one thing, there’s something delicious about having secrets revealed.

Religion does this well. Religious artworks remind us of two things: what there is to love and what there is to fear or hate. Philosopher Alain de Botton discusses this point. In the secular world we think art is important, it’s even said that galleries are our new cathedrals. To Botton, there’s potential but we’ve let ourselves down. There are two ideas hovering in the modern world that inhibit our ability to draw strength from art. The first being that art should be for arts sake, and second, art mustn’t explain itself.

Religions have a saner approach; they tell us what art is about. Essentially, it’s propaganda. That word sets off alarm bells, but propaganda is a way of being educational and if that thing is good, there’s no problem. Botton believes museums should mimic religions and make spaces where pieces are arranged so artworks speak clearly. In this way, art would be a tool to improve ourselves with communicative support.

Denis, a panelist at this month’s Canvas of Emotions agrees with Botton. “Some clue around what the creator was thinking or feeling can help to elicit a response and reach a wider audience. But in the end, the final interpretation will always come from the viewer. In summary, I kind of agree with Botton.”

While some find lengthy blurbs useful, others will argue that the freedom to interpretation is where beauty lies. I can’t tell which side I’m on. I guess it comes down to what we mean by “useful.” Is art there to teach or to touch? Or can it do both without us knowing the first thing about it?

Either way there is connection to be found on the surface of a canvas, and whether we know what it’s trying to say, we must trust our emotions. If a piece doesn’t speak to you, it isn’t the one for you. What is art to some is mess to others. That difference is OK. And, like all areas of life, two things can exist at once. There’s freedom in being left alone with a piece, there’s also enlightenment in learning about it.

I will be at the next Canvas of Emotions, and I invite you to join me. Whether you believe in explanation or interpretation, it’s a rare moment in which we get to question creative minds and their motivations. Until then, take a leaf out of Ben’s book. Notice what’s around you. For him, art is everywhere. Be curious, and who knows what you’ll uncover.

Mystery coats love, life, death and everything in between. We don’t have to know everything about anything to appreciate it. But a little help goes a long way.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend