Does a work of art require a meaning?

In some circles like academia and teaching, there is an expectation, even a pressure, to have art imbibed with meaning. It’s not enough to make pretty pictures; there has to be a narrative.

Art is made for different reasons and to convey different things; sometimes it’s ideas; other times, it offers up experiences.

There is also the expectation of the art consumer, do we all want deep meaning in our art?

Art is also a means of escape, letting go of the pressures and work of daily life and having a great time.

Looking at a sunset, there’s no need for deep meaning other than the sensory joy from experience; just as we enjoy the food, it’s a ‘feast for the eyes.

Two relationships

There are two relationships going on here: the artist and the art, also the art and the public.

The public gets to draw conclusions about the art made; the artist has no authority or even control over how the art is seen, accepted, or interpreted.

But even I find it bothersome that people find meaning in an art that was never intended to be there.

Art also always lives in a context; we can change the meaning of art by where we consume it. We look at art in a prestigious art gallery vs art on our phones. It changes the experience we have and the conclusions we draw.

A toilet in an art gallery seems serious, but the art on the phone is just one of the thousands of images, trivial, thrown away.

The other relationship is the art to the artist.

Giving our art meaning

As artists, we can often struggle to find meaning in the art and with our life and careers. We ask ourselves why we are doing this. Why does this painting matter? What am I trying to achieve here?

Like the artist’s voice, I don’t think there has to be meaning at the start. Often the meaning arises as you work. I’ve come to accept that what matters is painting what I want to paint and then letting the rest evolve naturally.

Ideas and feelings need to marinate; take the time to explore your thoughts, desires, needs, and values. Over time the answers become apparent as you work and introspect.

We overthink all this and forget that art is a process, an act. Art is done, created, consumed, not static and unearthed.

‘We take this all so seriously This art we make, this art path we travel.’

Art for Art Sake

In our striving for success, we’ve become so serious. We forget life is supposed to be fun.

So locked in our heads, made captive to analytical thought and problem-solving, we are suffering under a burden of overwork and stress.

Escapism helps us relax and has become more important in the overworked lifestyles we lead. Yet it is looked down as being self-indulgent lazy.

Our stress levels and ill health show our current attitude towards life, and art needs to change. Art like a sunset is a sensual experience that helps us unwind; there is no need to analyse it.

Art doesn’t have to have meaning, as shown by Abbot McNeil Whistler and the movement of Formalism. Here composition with colour, line, shape, texture, and other perceptual aspects rather than content or meaning is considered.

Artists can create art just to look good. In mind twentieth-century arts, we ask the question, ‘what is art for?’ a lot of art movements aros in the last century.

Conceptual art focuses on ideas, but Minimalistic art rejects them, it is just colour and shapes, and there is no message, no purpose.

Buddhism also looks at life and art in the same way. Zen, in particular, understands it is about being here and now, mindful of the sensory world we live in.

The old pond
A frog leaps in.
Sound of the water.


Art can be ideas, feelings, or just a play of sensations we can experience.

The anger over concept art can be understandable but also ironic because it’s about the self-absorbed member-of-the-public or art critic. Getting angry because the art isn’t living up to their expectations as if somehow it’s supposed to.


Meaning has become like the pursuit of happiness. The more we chase after it, the less we seem to have of it.

The more we obsess over meaning, the more we find our lives meaningless because we expect far too much. Chasing after something becomes a source of suffering, but letting go can paradoxically help you find it .

Maybe there is hope, William Blake said, ‘a fool who persists in his folly will become wise.’

Eventually, we find out our obsession is the problem and learn to let go, not to take ourselves and art so seriously. 

I can see why postmodernism art, especially comedy, exists from Monty Python, Don Quixote, to Deadpool. It pokes fun at our absurdity. The knots we tie ourselves into all pursuit of meaning and truth.

Art does not have to make sense or convey meaning any more than life. Art is just as much play as work. We play to enjoy the play.

Let art be what it is, it’s not always a problem to be fixed. Let the experience wash over you through you and let what happens arise and fall.

‘We do not dance to reach a certain point on the floor, but simply to dance.’…  ‘When we dance, the journey itself is the point, as when we play music the playing itself is the point. And exactly the same thing is true in meditation. Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment.’ 

― Alan Watts

Photo Credit: Bara Cross

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