When we look at a piece of art, a poem or a book, different feelings flow into our hearts such love, reverence, awe, irritation, disgust, or outright hatred. What causes these feelings are myriads of meanings, memories, associations, and similar things that we experience in our lives. They give art its meaning by adding to its depth.
But is the meaning as simple as that, or is there more?
When we look at a piece of art, its aesthetics captures our eye so we admire its beauty. If it's a picture, one of the first things that capture our attention is color. The contrast of colors blue, green, yellow, and how they are intermix with each other affects us. Another thing that allures us is the theme. If it’s the high art, the theme is always something very valuable and important to that culture.
That can be seen in the creation of the Adam fresco painting on the Sistine Chapel. It is an iconic piece of the Renaissance high art. One of the things that make this painting so important is its theme. According to the Bible, God created Adam in his own image. This meaningful interpretation and emotion value is perfectly captured by this painting. No doubt that colors, artistic skills, and style played their part in making this picture a great piece of art, but it is the theme that brings all these things together. It is the canvas that gives the painting potential to rise above all.
Generally, it is the beauty and the morally elevating quality of a text or a picture that judges its value, but beauty and morality are subjective- they cannot be quantified and evaluated in any objective manner. At most, you can have a consensus which is like democracy, but democracy cannot be used to truly evaluate the objective value of anything.
To counter this problem critics have employed different techniques and methods that try to be as objective as possible. For example, closely reading word to word and analyzing the text forces a readers form a picture multiple times enabling them to draw precise conclusions. Another method is to look carefully into the ancient languages or foreign languages used by the author as it allows to fully grasp the meaning of the text. Some critics suggest that the psychological state and background of the author as a necessary requirement for understanding a piece of text or image. All these methods of observations are helpful in their own ways, but ultimately the meaning and judgment about a piece of art are in the hands of each individual reader or a viewer.
Readers give the poem or picture its ultimate and final meaning but readers are not a single continuous mass which can be evaluated by applying any mathematical formula. Readers are individuals with their own psychologies, experiences, environments, cultures, world views, and perspectives. Each individual is unique and the meaning that he derives from a painting or a poem is also unique and very personal.
The intention of the author is often taken as a guiding principle for understanding a piece of art. Some people even try to dogmatize the meaning of art in this manner. But the interpretation ultimately lies with the reader. He can find beauty where the author intended ugliness. He can find connections and metaphors in shapes that were meaningless or of quite contrary meaning to the author.
For example, the shapes behind the figure of God in The creation of Adam painting on the Sistine Chapel ceiling appear to be an accurate picture of the human brain according to Frank Meshberger, a physician. On the contrary, others think that the red cloth around the figure of God is in the shape of the human uterus and the scarf hanging out could be the umbilical cord.
Similarly, the famous portrait of the Mona Lisa is a mystery to its viewers. There is no consensus on whether she is smiling or frowning. Is she happy or sad? There are only opinions about her demeanor, and the viewer has to draw his own conclusions.
In poetry, people draw their own conclusions about the poems they like. There is no doubt that many poems have very specific meanings and there is not much space for different interpretations, but most poems use metaphors and other literary devices that leaves some vagueness. This allows readers to inject their own meaning into poetry and make it more personal.
For example, William Wordsworth's Daffodils is interpreted in many different ways by various critics. Especially this last stanza:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
A simple interpretation can be that the poet often has memories of beautiful daffodils. But the poem invokes the memories of the distant past like the memories of childhood in the reader. This often fills readers with pleasure similar to the pleasure one feels when thinking about daffodils.
Similarly, Edgar Allan Poe’s poem A Dream within A Dream may be referring to the poet’s wife but its language is general and captures the preciousness of life and how fragile and momentary its pleasures are. Its meaning is certainly different for each reader as he ponders on things that are precious for him in this life.
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
Bukowski's bluebird is a mystery. Is the bluebird his creativity, his innocence, or something else? No one knows. But the poem is beautiful and everyone completes the meaning of bluebird with something of their own:
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see
In conclusion, the meaning of art is an organic thing. It is an ever-changing and evolving process. It is a spark of life that happens when a reader and a poem come face to face with each other. There is an interaction; a give and take of meaning. And only then a poem finds its right place in the heart of the reader.
Edited by cherrywine_stains