The Meaning We Mean Vs. the Meaning We Make
Viewers often experience non-political art as political, to validate their own worldview — a form of confirmation bias.
The still above is from Chinese contemporary artist Li Binyuan's "Drawing Board 100 x 40" — a direct representation of the futility and hubris of attempts to exert control over nature. Currently on display at MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York, through September 3, the piece is described as a gesture of absurdist physical endurance that refers back to a childhood experience in which the artist nearly drowned during a similar flood. It is meant to reflect the fragility of the human body in the face of nature's power.
But in the U.S., in July of 2018, I assigned another meaning to it as I stood watching. Binyuan did not intend for his performance to be political, but to me it represented our current political landscape — a changing landscape that is consistently at the top of the news cycle, and feels both authoritarian and chaotic in nature. In performing "Drawing Board 100 x 40", Li Binyuan demonstrated all of the political emotions I had been feeling lately.
To assert that the average viewer of art will create their own meaning around what they are seeing sounds like a big, giant, "duh." It is not a revelation. But I don't believe that it is a conscious choice for the viewer most of the time. I think we do it more than we think we do, without even realizing. Art is often famously political — from Picasso's painting, Guernica, to Nine Inch Nails' song, "The Hand That Feeds" — but not always. Viewers will, however, experience it as political when it suits their emotions and worldview, especially when politics are important to them, or they are experiencing political anxiety in their own lives.
Meaning-making has been part of the lives of humans since prehistoric times. But it wasn't until the late 1960s that Semiotics, a branch of Linguistics, became a major approach to cultural studies. Semiotics — or put plainly, the study of signs — was founded much earlier, in the early 1900s, by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure:
"It is... possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life. It would form part of social psychology, and hence of general psychology. We shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeîon, 'sign'). It would investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them. Since it does not yet exist, one cannot say for certain that it will exist. But it has a right to exist, a place ready for it in advance. Linguistics is only one branch of this general science. The laws which semiology will discover will be laws applicable in linguistics, and linguistics will thus be assigned to a clearly defined place in the field of human knowledge." (Saussure 1983, 15-16; Saussure 1974, 16)
Semiotics involves the study of what we refer to as 'signs' in everyday speech, and also of anything which 'stands for' something else. In a semiotic sense, signs take the form of words, images, sounds, gestures and objects. The study of semiotics covers everything from art, design, media, and politics, to social phenomena like myth, kinship rules, and totemism. For example, while passing through the American Museum of Natural History's Northwest Coast Hall (currently under construction until 2020), it's easy to be taken by the beauty and scale of the objects on display, but important to consider their meaning.
And yet, even when artwork is already the result of the meanings and intentions of the artist or people who created it — entirely absent of political messaging — we as viewers often gravitate toward assigning our own politics to it.
In July I saw Radiohead at Madison Square Garden. Number eight on the band's set list was "No Surprises", a song that contains the following lyrics:
Bring down the government
They don't, they don't speak for us
The crowd, understandably in the political age of Donald Trump, went wild when Radiohead's frontman Thom York sang those lyrics. On social media after the concert, people referenced Trump when talking about the song.
But here is what York had to say about the song, and those lyrics in particular:
"[The line 'Bring down the government/They don’t, they don’t speak for us'] has become this weird thing, it gets this weird reaction [when we play it now]. But again that was written on a shitty bus journey. A two-hour bus journey with a bunch of old-age pensioners in Britain. I don’t know why my car wasn’t working. It actually wasn’t a political thing at all. It was like, 'Why have people like this been dropped? Why are we just left to rot? If this is a democracy then they should be helping us. Why aren’t they helping us?' It was just that." (Rolling Stone, 2017)
In 2018 in America, two years into a controversial Trump Presidency, and a political landscape that feels overly chaotic and continues to change, it makes sense that we would look for comfort in spaces where we usually find it. For a lot of us, those spaces are museums and concerts, as an audience to our favorite artists. Even when it is not meant to soothe or further arouse our political anxieties, or validate our political emotions, art has the ability to provoke important dialogues and raise awareness. But maybe more importantly, art has the ability to make us feel validated.