“Does art need to be explained?” is the kind of question that divides people. Indeed, some people think that every artwork should be accompanied by an explanation, while others believe that the meaning of an artwork is determined by the viewer.
I focused my last “Tips for artists” on how to talk about your work when you’re an artist, so if you’ve read this article, you already know my point of view.
But it’s not that simple.
Sometimes art doesn’t need to be explained.
To me, Art doesn’t need to be explained when it makes you feel something, when you don’t need to know the why and the how to “feel” the artwork, and when explanations might ruin what you felt in the first place.
At the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille (France), there’s my favourite sculpture:
a sculpture called “Damalis”, realized by Antoine Etex in 1838.
It represents a young woman, who seems to be sitting on the ground.
With one of her hands, she is lightly touching one of her toes.
Gosh, it looks so simple and yet so moving. I came across this sculpture a few years ago, and I loved it as soon as I saw it.
First of all, it’s beautifully made. We can’t imagine how many hours it must have taken. The shapes, the expression, everything looks so real.
The other thing I really like about this sculpture is the story we can tell ourselves when looking at it. The fact that this woman is here, alone among all the paintings, naked (there’s nothing erotic about this sculpture), looking at her toe as if she doesn’t care about what’s going around her is…incredible. She definitely lives in her own world.
There’s also something really sensitive and shy about this young woman. A kind of softness. And this softness makes me want to tell this young woman: “look at me, tell me who you are, where you come from, what your story is…”. In fact, I want her to turn into a real person.
As I said, I came across this sculpture a few years ago and I remember that the first time I saw it, I was very moved by it, and then, a few minutes later, I wrote the artwork’s name down on my phone because I wanted to know more about it. I then did some research on it but never found something convincing as my first impression. I discovered that this sculpture was inspired by a poem by André Chenier (“ Arcas et Bacchylis”) but nope, it wasn’t what I was looking for. In fact, I still don’t know what I was looking for at that time.
As humans, we always look for explanations even though what we see, feel, understand is certainly enough. But, in this case, what I found made me realize that I shouldn’t have been looking for explanations. The sculpture spoke for itself, and I could interpret it as I wanted. To me, this young lady, named Damalis, is actually sitting by a river. She has just swum in the river, and afterwards, she’s decided to stay a while on the grass, in the shade of the trees. She’s 15 years old. She’s kind and shy. At that moment, she’s lost in thought, and she’s maybe thinking about the young man she loves. After that moment, she’ll get up, get dressed and go home.
When I imagine this story, I think about the ted talk given by Tracy Chevalier in which she talks about how she imagines stories behind paintings when she visits exhibitions. She seems to be saying that she does this to establish a relationship with the artwork she looks at. And I really like this idea.
But in my case, I didn’t even seek to establish a relationship with this sculpture: it appeared without me asking for it. I felt moved by this lady. Her softness, her not-so-unhappy loneliness, the silence that emanates from her…everything moved me. To me, this is the kind of art we need in this world: something that makes us stop.
I think we all know masterpieces that move us and for which we need no explanation. Yet, I also think that…
…Art needs to be explained.
I graduated from an art school that taught me why and how artists should talk about their works. It was really frustrating at first, because all I wanted to do was take pictures. But I soon realized that as artists, we don’t just create.
Our works are meant to convey messages. We create art to share our visions. So this school taught me that I couldn’t just take and display my images: I had to think about what I wanted to express, create my images, and then write and talk about their meanings. Although this annoyed me at first, it eventually made sense: an artist statement tends to complement the artwork by telling us more about the artist’s intention or telling it differently.
An explanation provides a context that allows the viewer to dive even deeper into the artist’s universe and mind.
According to an article I recently read, if words can express the artist’s intention, then the artwork is useless. Well, I strongly disagree with that.
We know that art can be misunderstood or misinterpreted. It happens very often. That’s why we shouldn’t choose between the artwork OR the artist’s explanation: both are necessary.
But sometimes, the artwork can speak for itself. It depends on who is looking at it. It doesn’t mean that a person who doesn’t find the meaning is stupid. To me, it just means that we’re all different, even when it comes to works of art, and so we’re therefore differently touched by them.
In my work, I often use my artist statement as a key for people to really understand my intention. My work generally misleads people, so if they don’t read my artist statement, they may see my work differently. My text, therefore, complements my work. But it doesn’t mean that my work cannot speak for itself: some people directly understand my intention, while others need explanations or find new meanings. But it’s fine: as an artist, I think that meanings are not fixed, they can change depending on the person, and I gladly accept that. And I even think that fixed meanings can be really boring. As an artist, you have to be open-minded.
The question “Does art need to be explained?” often comes up when we wonder if what we’re looking at is art. Do you remember Maurizio Cattelan’s banana? It surely doesn’t speak for itself: we need to know the meaning behind it. And that’s how we can finally decide if what we’re looking at is art or not.
In my opinion, there are some artworks that can be easily understandable, so we don’t need them to be explained. For example, I think that most people easily get Banksy’s intention when they look at his artworks.
When I decided to talk about this topic, the first thing I thought of was abstract art. I’m one of the many people who don’t understand what they’re supposed to see and feel when they look at this kind of art. Most of the time, I admire the way it’s made…but I don’t find the meaning of it. I definitely need explanations. For example, I really like Jackson Pollock’s work because of his technique and the way his paintings look, but I don’t understand the message they convey. The fact that I like his paintings doesn’t keep me awake at night, but I would obviously like to know more about his intention.
However, I can well imagine that people find meaning in his work. Because, as I said, we all interpret art differently.
For some people, the greatest artworks are those that speak for themselves. Well, yes and no. Let’s take the example of Edward Hopper’s paintings. We can say that most of them are masterpieces. They’re captivating, they can be interpreted in many different ways, and in this case, we surely don’t need to know more about them…but knowing that EH’s intention was to talk about the United States and what was happening there, especially in the 1920s–1930s, surely adds something essential to our interest.
So my answer to the question “Does art need to be explained?” is that it depends on the artwork and the person who’s looking at it. It depends on our sensitivity, taste, personal experience and imagination. That’s why an artist statement should always be provided, and people are free to read it or not. I don’t think my mom understands the meaning of my images, but I know she feels something when she looks at Monet’s paintings (haha).
Answering “yes” to this question would mean that every artwork has to be explained, and I really don’t think so. But deciding that artworks should never be accompanied by explanations would prevent us from truly knowing them all. What if we misinterpret or misunderstand what the artist wants to say? Artists are politicians who use their art to express what they fight for or believe in, so what happens if their messages are not really understood?
This is why an explanation may be necessary and should therefore always be available.