Nicholas Baxter

Blog posts tagged “meaning”

What Is Art? (Part 1.5): An Integral Approach

In a delightful twist of fate last week, an email appeared on my computer screen (via my subscription to the Core Integral newsletter) that advanced and expanded the concepts I attempted to shed light on with my last blog post, about what art is and how to use it as an effective communication. So, in an impromptu Part 1.5 of my ongoing inquiry, here is the text of that newsletter with a link to the lecture it refers to, followed by a brief review of its major concepts.

“Think of a piece of art that you are particularly struck by. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be a painting, a piece of music, a film, or any other expression of beauty that you find yourself impressed with or inspired by. Visualize the piece in your mind’s eye—or, if you like, open a new tab in your web browser and Google it, so it’s right in front of you. As you admire your preferred object of beauty, ask yourself a simple question: how can I tell what this means? How do you answer?

  • a) The meaning can be found in the original intent of the artist. If I want to know what a piece of art means, I should simply ask the artist.
  • b) The meaning can be found in the artwork itself. The artwork is a whole unto itself, and everything I need to understand it is fully present in the actual piece of art.
  • c) The meaning can be found in the response of the viewer, which means that a single piece of art can have multiple meanings, depending on who happens to be observing it.
  • d) The meaning can be found in all the social circumstances surrounding the artist, since no artwork is created in a vacuum. If you want to know what a piece of art means, you need to consider where and when it was made, its historic and techno-economic influences, etc.
  • e) All of the above.

If you answered “all of the above” there’s a very good chance this talk is for you. But here’s the weird thing: people don’t always know that’s even an option. In fact, it’s still overlooked most of the time. Most artists, philosophers, and critics have devoted their entire lives and careers to just one of the first four choices, while passionately trying to negate the others. Listen as Ken describes each of these major schools of interpretation, how they originated, and how they all fit together into a more cohesive vision of art and aesthetics.”

(An audio file of Ken’s talk can be streamed here.)

In this hour lecture, leading Integral philosopher Ken Wilber talks about the various schools of artistic interpretation that have arisen in the past few hundred years, and how each used in isolation is inadequate as a means of reaching the deepest or most comprehensive appreciation of visual art. He gives the historical and cultural context surrounding such movements as Formalism (too dismissive of an artist’s intention), Romanticism (too dismissive of external social forces), and other useful but incomplete -isms that have made major contributions to the art world. Ken argues that one must integrate as many of these schools of thought as possible, in order to build a more complete framework for understanding (or creating) art that accesses knowledge from each of the “4 Quadrants” that comprise reality (interior, exterior, individual, and collective).


Ken Wilber’s theory states that all art is created by a combination of all 4 quadrants of reality, and therefore can only be fully understood with knowledge derived from all 4 quadrants.

He refers to the concept of artistic intention quite a bit, which I was thrilled to hear from a non-artist, since increasing the level of intentionality that I paint with has been one of my areas of focus for the past few years (which I mentioned as part of my internal dialogue in Part 1: Self Inquiry). What intention requires, as Ken eludes to, is knowledge and context: a framework of understanding broad enough to shed light on all the different choices an artist can make. The opposite of intention is what I’ve experienced as “the manifestation of indecision,” a state of ignorance or naiveté in which the art-making process resorts to blind instinct and shot-in-the-dark crapshoots that one merely hopes will look good or manage to communicate something in the end.

What Ken doesn’t mention is that understanding all of this, of course, requires a level of motivation (to spend time learning) that perhaps only the most dedicated artists or enthusiasts would possess. So while I thoroughly appreciate his critique and advice, I feel it’s a bit of wishful thinking–if not a bit patronizing as well–and in being “over the heads” of many laypersons, it therefore still won’t solve the great debate for most.

But if you’re an ultra art nerd like I am, and have a quiet hour to devote to a dry intellectual oration, you will love the complex yet logical perspective Ken offers as his answer to the questions “What is art?” and “How do we make sense of it?”

“You really need to have a comprehensive philosophy of reality if you’re going to [effectively] interpret the meaning of art, because all of these dimensions impact an artwork, and therefore are part of the art’s meaning. And if you’re going to unfold that meaning, then you have to have a really rich, comprehensive philosophy of contexts.”

–Ken Wilber

What Is Art? (Part 1): Self Inquiry

“If a tree falls and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”

This is the kind of existential crisis I circumnavigate when considering (read: having anxiety about) the effectiveness of my paintings and the symbolism I choose to communicate with. Am I effectively expressing my intended meaning? And is my intended meaning aligning with the viewer’s perceived meaning? Does it even matter?

It can be argued that what makes something art is the group participatory act; it almost always requires someone other than its creator to see it. Art is, in general terms, a unit of cultural information that is put forth by participant A, and taken in by participant B. Hence, a communication. Always. A message is always put out, whether the artist intends to or not. This visual communication is even more fundamental than our ever-present and taken for granted verbal communication. At its most primal level, visual art certainly is more direct–it’s sub-verbal, it requires no complicating exchange of written or oral language.

But, contemporary art in the postmodern era is often maddeningly indirect and complicated. A product of an exceedingly complex society, annd having been created either intentionally or instinctively on the foundations of modern philosophical thought spanning hundreds of years, it does actually beg the need in the viewer for a more advanced knowledge of the visual language of symbolism and metaphor. That red means “stop” or “danger” or “look here!” is basic and even primal knowledge. That a picture of surgeon’s hands manipulating opened flesh might symbolize the oppression of technological civilization and the material-reductionist paradigm which has separated spirit from matter and meaning from life is quite frankly, a lot less obvious to all but the most studied art critics and curators. That’s where the ‘art as communication’ issue gets complicated and sticky…and so necessary for any conscientious or ambitious artist to ponder.


Anointing, oil on panel, 24 x 24 in, 2012

Having established all of this, I ask myself again the artist’s version of the tree falling question, “What is art?”

In the case of visual art, I follow this line of inquiry to a fork in the road separating the act of creation from the result of creation or the art object, the painting that hangs on the wall. So when I ask myself what art is, I must remember this important distinction (thanks to the clumsy imprecision of the everyday English vernacular), because what I discover that I really mean is: what is an art object?

I then find that this line of inquiry opens up the need for even more distinctions: Does intention make something art? Meaning, the creator intends the work being produced to carry a conceptual pretense, some kind of idea or symbolism beyond the literal depiction or the physical, material object. In such cases where there is presumably no overt artistic intention (such as photojournalism*, the simple documenting of events), does viewer perception make it art, retroactively? Following the postmodern ethics of subjectivity, a viewer’s perception can not be disproven; if someone says it’s art, then for all intents and purposes, it is…to them.

(Insert Dada and Duchamp’s controversial urinal into the debate here.)


So I guess what all this means is that part of my ongoing refinement as an artist is a constant evaluation of my message, its truthfulness, and its effectiveness, and in order to do this I have to dig deep into the world of art theory to prove or disprove–and IMprove–what I’ve done. What am I intending to say, and what do viewers think I’m saying based on the feedback I’ve received**? Do the two match up? If they diverge, how and (maybe more importantly) why? What symbolism and what artistic strategies can I experiment with to bring intention and perception into alignment to produce powerful, life-altering, inspiring communication?


*Sometime between now and forever I’ll write about my love for this “artform” and the unintentional masterpiece in What Is Art? (Part 2): Photojournalism

**Praise be to the all-important critique session!