How Does Visual Art Work?

Sorry for the silence last week, I was trying madly to increase my mastery of the material in Visual Arts 150: Contemporary Practice: Theory & Criticism so that I wouldn’t suffer another B on the second assignment. Hopefully the effort will pay off!

A guest at dinner Saturday night had a skeptical view of Art works’ narrative power… I wasn’t quite prepared to get into it at the time, however I do feel like it is a superb monologue topic to explore here on

If a picture says a thousand words, how many words does a painting say? Well, as in most things, the correct answer is it depends! What does it depend on? As usual, a number of factors… Here’s my thinking on the high order bits concerning both visual art’s narrative power and how it works.

Visual primitivity 

If the point you are trying to make is of a narrative nature why create a painting rather than write an essay or manifesto? I believe there are two related and important reasons. Visual signals are more primitive, more base, than language signals. We could (generally true for individuals as well as our species) see before we had language to speak. Language has evolved to help us describe the things we see, either in our minds eye or our actual eyes. Yet despite the great redundancy embedded in our languages there is an inevitable loss of fidelity. The words you use to represent something are never precisely it, sometimes they mean more than what you intend, sometimes they mean less. The Platonic ideal is never quite achieved. In addition to the loss of fidelity, the use of language insulates the reader, listener, thinker, from the subject matter… grammar, syntax, definition, connotation all insulate receivers of the message from the fundamental subject matter. Loss of fidelity combined with insulation via language mechanics creates a barrier to impact… it protects the receiver of the message from a base response, a protection that visual art can strip away.

Viewer engagement

Humans have a natural tendency to try and explain or understand things… understanding things to a certain degree must have had a survival benefit. Even when confronted with a red square many gallery goers will still attempt to find meaning in it, which may indeed be a futile endeavour. There are many ways that both the context of a work, and the presentation methods within the work can deliver meaning to a viewer. The viewer’s tendency to want to understand things, the visual primitivity characteristic of a piece of visual art, and the viewer’s non-language based super-concious conspire to create meaning in the beholders mind. Jung would have described this as symbolism, some of these symbols are intentional, some are unintentional, some are on the surface and some, perhaps, are buried too deep for the conscious mind to retrieve. This interaction, viewer engagement, can be near mystical in nature, for without practice, discipline and study much of it happens off the stage of consciousness… but it does happen and it has the potential to bring with it much good from the murky depths of the mind.

The representation to nonrepresentational continuum

Some works of art are purely formal… that is “Red Square Study 2403356 (1933)” could just be about a red square… this is the far extreme of the nonrepresentational on our continuum. It represents nothing other than what it depicts, and that which is depicted is literally what it is, in this case we are presuming a red square. The opposite side of our spectrum is a painting that is so representational it almost looks like a photograph. No expression of the artist is discernible except for the subject matter choices, lighting and other nearly photographic presentational factors… somewhere in the middle, perhaps closer to the non-representational extreme, are abstract works with an incomplete narrative meaning… the same red square named, “Two Couples, Four Sides (1969)” has a very different implied meaning… which touches on context, which also has an influence on how a viewer receives and interprets a piece of visual art.

Transparency of a work, hand of the artist

The majority of works, regardless of where it lies on the representation nonrepresentational continuum, have some element that can be ascribed to the artist’s “hand”. Even in a photograph, elements such as what the artist has chosen to depict, the lighting, the focus, the focal point, that which is in the centre of the frame, can all be attributed in part to the artists hand. In painting add to this list the types of brush strokes, the realism, what has been distorted, how the scene has been abstracted, chosen symbols and many other elements. The degree to which a piece of visual art is opaque (opposite to transparent) is the degree to which the artists intent can be read from the completed work. How the red square is painted may have some influence on how we interpret the work in connection with the title and other pieces of its context. If it is a complete formalist work, Square Study 42, than we may not prescribe any mean to elements we can ascribe to the artists hand.

The way visual art works on an audience is complex, however the primitivity of the visual signal allows a viewer to engage with it on a level which is different, more base, than how they interact with the written, spoken or thought word. Though not all works carry a narrative or meaning they certainly have the power to, even many of those far along the continuum towards the nonrepresentational.

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