Yesterday, Every Breath You Take by the Police, came on the radio. It reminded me of a comment section I had just read online about that very song. How people used it for wedding songs even though it is clearly a song about a stalker. Someone mentioned an anecdote about Sting’s friends requesting he sing that for their wedding. He sat them down and explained the song to them. They picked a different song.
Another commenter replied, it doesn’t matter what the artist says, the audience decides what it means.
Is that true? Does the intent of the art truly not matter, even if the artist makes it very clear what that intent is? I’ve heard from a lot of people who tell me not to talk about the meaning of my art very much. Let the audience decide. You don’t want to tell people what it means because that might disappoint them if they got something else from it. Don’t tell them what to think. Let them connect in their own way.
I’ve mostly listened to this advice. Mainly because I have an odd sense of humor and make up odd stories for the animals in my paintings. I want people to look at my animal paintings and just feel good. Get a little smile, maybe chuckle. Maybe roll their eyes at the silliness of some of them, because they’ve seen their dog make that same face. Or their wife gives them a side-eye exactly like that giraffe.
But isn’t art about communication? What’s the point of communicating if the people you are trying to reach don’t care what you have to say? If they think their interpretation of what you said is more important?
We don’t even like talking to people like that. It’s exhausting. To say, “Wait, no, that’s not what I meant,” and try to explain it differently, but they still don’t care. Usually, we either start shouting or we leave the conversation, physically or mentally. Do we want to risk artists leaving the conversation?
Before we get out our pitchforks, let’s look at the other side. We love a song, the artist comes out with a video or talks about the song (or movie or book, etc.) and suddenly, you’re confused. That’s what that meant? The song is a bit tarnished for you now and it just feels different. Should you care what the artist says?
In most cases, it probably doesn’t matter what the artist meant. Take my animal series. It doesn’t matter to me if you see what I see. If you love the same parts I love. If you love parts I don’t love. I think all of that is great and interesting to me as the artist. Just like if you notice a flaw, that doesn’t mean you have to ignore the parts which appeal to you.
However, what about when the artist specifically states their art is about something else entirely? Georgia O’Keeffe is probably the best example. She says those aren’t lady parts. Everyone sees lady parts.
*Tangent: I swear on everything I have, I saw a print of a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe, hung at a community college I went to for a bit, titled, Vulva. I mentioned this in an art history class 400 miles away and 5 years later and someone agreed she painted a painting titled, Vulva. I can’t find anything on it to save my life. I have no doubt I could have been mistaken, but this other person was just adamant. She probably didn’t, but I hope it’s out there somewhere. *
Does it matter they aren’t vulvas? Do we get, not just a say in her art, but the final say? Can we like them for their sensuality and still recognize that’s not the point? Can we reclaim them as feminist symbols? Should we?
Should we wash the contextual and societal meaning from art so they fit with what we wish they said?
Do you think both definitions can exist at once if we allow? Do you think we can understand the concept of the art in a broader way while still connecting to it, personally, in a different way? Would the painting change meaning just because the audience changes? The size of the audience. The century the audience lives in? People who don’t understand the complexities of the art vs people who have studied that artist for years?