September 12, 2010

What Do You Mean?

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What is the importance of the ghost in Hamlet? How do we interpret the angularity of Picasso’s “The Young Ladies of Avignon?” What does Plumtree’s potted meat in Ulysses mean?Questions of meaning pervade our experience of art. Perhaps because of education or even more because of human nature, the moment we look at a painting or read a poem we cannot help but ask what it means or how to interpret it. In fact these questions are so much a part of our experience that it becomes difficult to come up with answers; the more we interpret the more complex and numerous our interpretations become and therefore the less certain our conclusions. This plurality of meanings leads some to conclude that in fact there is no meaning; a literary text or work of art includes so many contradictions and multiple messages that it dismantles itself. Art, like life, is so complicated that finding a single meaning becomes impossible. Perhaps there is not such a thing as “meaning” at all.Yet, there is at least one area of our experience to which the concept “meaning” seems to apply. We feel comfortable saying that language, or at the very least, simple sentences in language have meaning. In fact language does not work as a communicative tool if the sounds which make up language are in fact just sounds and do not mean something more. So if we are going to entertain questions about meaning, perhaps we should begin by looking at language. Studies in cognitive science suggest that when we learn language we learn by storing the patterns of language in memory. Our minds internalize the meaning of utterances by grouping our memories of the times we have heard them. Imagine a child who hears the utterance “this is a person” one day and the next day hears “this is a cat,” then later “this is a dog.” Soon the child understands the structure of the utterance “this is a _____” and when to use it by drawing upon these memories. In this way meaning in language is not what you look up in a dictionary, but a grouping of memories. So when we learn a word or utterance we are not drawing upon one definition, but upon several memories. This grouping, this “halo” of memories, forms the meaning of words and utterances in language. If meaning in language can reveal anything about meaning in art, this suggests that when we look at a painting of a mountain, for instance, we are not just looking at one picture of a mountain, but we are also experiencing all the times we’ve seen mountains or pictures of mountains before. When we read Mark Twain we are not just experiencing the journey of one adventurous young boy, but we are connecting it to all of our other experiences with adventure, youth and the American South. In this way, when the “halo of meaning” suggested by language is applied to art or literature, meaning in art becomes highly contextualized: Meaning does not come from just one work of art, but from its relations to other works of art and literature.The idea of a halo of meaning does not merely suggest that meaning in art is contextualized — it also suggests that meaning in art is relative. Each individual might have a different halo of meaning for a word, a slightly different set of memories for times a word has been used. Similarly, each individual has different experiences and has been exposed to different works of art or literature. According to these different halos, they may interpret the artwork differently. Couldn’t these points just further the idea that art has no meaning? If our interpretation of art is influenced by our experiences, then nothing has absolute meaning. Yet in language we are still able to communicate because there is a great deal of similarity in our experiences of words. Similarly, meaning in art may come from the similarities in our interpretations and experiences of art and, though we may not like to admit it, the similarities in our experiences of life. These observations about meaning in art are not new. But what were once intuitions about meaning can now be confirmed by cognitive science and the scientific studies of language. So while the meaning of meaning may not be completely answered, these methods may bring it within reach.

Original Author: Caiden Leavitt