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Forum Home > Nicholas Penny and 'effective history' > How can a painting change it's meaning

John Wilkinson
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At the risk of being accused of arguing semantics, I would contend that a painting, or indeed any artwork, is inherently unable to 'do' anything. It is fixed, immutable beyond the ravages of time and accident, at the point at which it's creator left it. Assuming the work has been created with meaning in mind, that meaning, equally, cannot be changed over time. The creator of the work is always the only person who can effect change in its meaning, and the point at which they cease to do so, either through completion or abandonment, is the point at which the meaning of the work becomes fixed. Seems obvious really, so logic tells us that surely what Nicholas Penny is referring to is the ability of the viewers, over time, to change the meaning they ascribe to the work. 

In imbuing a work with meaning, the artist uses socio-cultural references relevant to the period during which they created the work. As time passes, these become redundant, falling out of the collective understanding to the point where our ability to receive them diminishes. Occasionally, the same references may change their meaning and so the work becomes confused, imbued with new meaning that can clash with other referential elements within the work. We as viewer have literally lost the ability to read the language that the work is created in. Determining meaning in either case now becomes the province of the historian, and it is their knowledge of the language that we have to rely on to find meaning in the work.

This second (or third, or twenty third) hand meaning that we are left with may be far removed from the authors original intent, and raises a more interesting question, particularly for an intentionalist. Broadly, beyond pure aesthetic value, what meaning can a painting convey once it is removed by time or distance from its socio-cultural context?

February 23, 2014 at 8:08 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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