Thirteen theses on art-making and meaning construction
1. Artists are not the masters of meaning. Meaning is generated by way of retrospective reading. Meaning follows after a particularly unique encounter with an artwork is measured/evaluated in the context of the other meaningful encounters with art that are already part of history – be that personal or collective. During production, meaning is not even alluded to, as what transpires in the creation of an artwork is the emergence of a language or mode of expression (not centered on the self but as an expression of the knowable, half-knowable and unknowable worlds) followed by a withdrawal from the social frame where each act has already established a direct liaison with the conventional circuit of meaning. True art is thus a withdrawal from any socially-economically or ideologically established frame of signification as it engages with the emerging society, or the society where the linguistic being is free to explore what is 'imaginable', but never restricted to what is futurologically plausible. Therefore, every authentic artwork is an open-ended construction, even if it has primarily been cast around a fixed subject matter or addresses an issue of social-political import.
2. There is uncertainty in art. Both in art making and in interpreting art there appears a gap/fissure between what one expects and what one is able to gain out of the process of making and reading art. Art making involves a multilateral negotiation between sensibilities, competencies and conscious and unconscious reckoning. The transformative act that is art flows from and towards all kinds of known and half-known sources and directions, yet art is the locus where intuitive genius meets pragmatic procedures as things collapse into a final act, thereby making creation a collection of moments of both self-conscious and self-moving activities. Reading, on the other hand, involves our ability to travel back and forth between '“abstract generality” and “self-moving activity” of cognition'1(my emphasis). '
3. [T]he incursion of competing possibilities over and against a “traditionally” held possibility,’2 makes things complex during both creation and enjoyment and interpretation of art. Consequently, value judgment becomes a comparatively contentious issue in a climate where the 'learned' have stuck to the doxa they approve of, and the 'un- or half-educated' have forgotten to equip themselves with some form of 'visual-mental archiving/rumination' as well as critical understanding of both old and new forms of art.
4. From the standpoint of the artist, it is by contemplating a diversion from any other socially-politically established frame of signification that art attains its meaning – social and otherwise. In this sense each new artwork is a breach of the social contract and a deviation from the established pathways leading to the well-recognized contact points between the artistic world and the society at large. Artists seek to construct the 'social' through an alternative set of contact points or registers running the entire gamut across the continuum of the individual and the collective. Each artist attempts to accomplish this by re-engaging with the collective/social by way of his/her subjective approaches to both forgotten, half-forgotten or even alive and established trajectories in relation to the given cotemporary realities.
5. Art thus is an asocial, anti-utilitarian act that derives its strength from within the historical moments by advancing a critique of what is merely historical.
6. The liminal thus becomes the substitute for the social/historical in art. It is upon the arrival of the beholder, following any form of staging of artwork, that meaning is sought and extracted from the work through successive encounters and readings. Additionally, reading is always contextual as liminality or 'inbetweenness’3 in a given epoch simply foregrounds a condition of discontentment with the 'here and now', or in another parlance, with the epochal.
7. The sensory/experiential dimension of each encounter with a given artwork is a way to recognize, in trace, the energy generated in the actual event/act of art-making or that which is detected as the final deposition and believed to have been carried forth in the art form/expression. This is exactly what is sensed in the work by others as 'presence'. This presencing of the sensuous or the experiential, which is the result of conscious and unconscious efforts, has lent the object of art its uniqueness or authenticity. But one must also be aware that art is an end product of a material and spiritual investment which pays the artist unbound surpluses, about which the artist is aware but is never the master of. Because art is a language which occasions many, many unrestricted, unrestrained readings.
8. The sensory and other experiences the object gives rise to are followed by the event(s) of 'meaning-making'. The moment of creation has so far been able to inscribe into the object/form/idea a pack of sensuous and cognitive qualities, however reading begins by placing the object in a web of signs – existing, or in the process of becoming (an existence), within a given social milieu.
9. In symptoms (of creativity) and signatures (of uniqueness) the actual moment of creation is never to be discovered. Or even the artist's intent may not be palpable in the creation. But if the work places itself on a new frontier through which to locate the meaning of its 'being', it is accomplished through a direct form of cognition – through spontaneous response, before even attempts are made to unpack it as a socially-psychologically loaded semiotic expression. As such, aesthetic pleasure precedes all other attempts at semiotic unpacking, which primarily probes 'what it is as a form of language' and 'what it reveals (to us) through that linguistic expression'.
10. If the sand castle the artist has built seems meaningful to some, it seems so as the signs it generates become readable to them in relation to other existing signs/signification other sand castles issue forth. Thus reading takes place always within a horizon of signs. The new sand castle finds its place among other existing sand castles and by doing so it spurs the initial spontaneous response which is enough to sense the creative energy for the enthusiastic observer/reader who contemplates the artwork to derive both pleasure and meaning. Energy is a felt experience – one that our sensory-cognitive dyad helps us to get transferred from object to body as experienced reality and body to body as linguistically transportable reality. Thus, even if a beholder is partially awakened about the significance of an art object in relation to its current social-aesthetic meaning, the pleasure of experiencing the sensuous qualities is never undermined.
11. If the sand castle is made of sand, that does not make it meaningful, but the form of the sand castle does. The structure of creation and the form, the structure of expression, are in conversation with each other but are not mechanically connected. Rather their relationship is dialectical. Through this dialectics of process geared towards an often indeterminate end result art is catapulted into a region of the real/actual leading to pleasure and meaning.
12. Before one asks 'what it means,' one must know how to enjoy the presence of the artwork. In each significant aesthetic breakthrough the work reassert newness not only by provoking response – cognitive and otherwise, but by the enlargement of the sphere of pleasure which includes the pleasure of experiencing, looking, touching, gathering thought around its form and content, etc.
13. Creative processes can always be modalized/formalized into a set of doxa or dictum as in the case of the antagonistic traditionalist and progressivist art forms that emerged in Bengal in the later part of the colonial period. To be able to continue with unmodelized praxes (always in the plural even if a single artist is involved) is the aim of all authentic artists. The very first level of conscious awakening to an art praxis that divides up into several offshoots is thus a way to respond to those stimuli (visual/experiential and cognitive) recognizable in the artworks.
- Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak's formulation used in an altered context. From the translator's preface to the English translation of Of Grammatology of Jacques Derrida by Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak.
- Uncertainty in the process of artmaking involves 'the incursion of competing possibilities over and against “traditionally” held possibilities.'–John Brui, Homo Interrogations: Questioning and the Intentional Structure of Cognition, p 120, Philosophica, University of Ottawa.
- Inbetweenness or liminality is the concept broached by Homi K Bhaba to explain the ambivalent sense of belonging by writers such as Salman Rushdie, who neither belong to the country of his migration, nor is firmly linked to his country of origin.