Recently, I read an article on Artsy that mentioned "Whistler’s Mother." I didn't know until a few years ago that this was not Whistler's title for his painting. James Abbot McNeill Whistler spent a lot of time objecting to "meaning" in art, and he famously objected to the insistence that a painting be about more than what its surface indicated. Though he was a crank, his title, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1,” supports his claim that composition and color, not subject matter, were the impetus for the piece. Knowing this, I have nonetheless persisted in thinking of the painting by the popular title, rather than the artist's.
When I got my BA in literature in the early 90's, the "New Critics" were at the end of their influence. A class called “Approaches to Literature” taught us to read from Freudian, Feminist and a few other perspectives, but the most respected professors still insisted a "text" be encountered independent of any biographical, cultural or historical context. That the most beloved story be Read as if you found it lying open on a table in an empty room. That image left an impression, though I believed then as I do now that the reduction of reading (and writing) this way is an understandable, but ultimately wrong-headed, attempt to get control of a made, so essentially wild, thing.
These days “reading like a writer” classes abound, the antithesis of New Criticism. I was reading like a writer then, because I wanted to be a writer, more curious as to why the writer made certain choices of emphasis and proportion than what her system of symbols might connote. The latter conversation, in the absence of biographical, cultural and other information, struck me as pointlessly subjective — exactly contrary to the intent of New Criticism. Think of Picasso’s use of blue. Or the tidbit I picked up recently that whatever his aesthetics, Picasso’s Cubism was also a convenient way to disguise portraits of his mistresses from his wife. That’s fascinating, plausible, human. The artist’s decisions are more objectively verifiable, too, because the artist may have stated his or her intention, as in the case of Whistler.
It's true that makers are sometimes least aware of what they’re truly up to. That doesn't disqualify the story they tell themselves or others about their work, but it does argue for viewing the artist’s account as one resource among many. Before we assume Whistler’s tempestuous relationship with his mother influenced the palette in which he rendered her, we should consider that the fact that his model failed to show up that day. (But his mother did live with him, insinuate herself into his artistic life, was perhaps a bit overbearing ... coincidence?)
The point is, human beings obviously not only enjoy, but need story. If we don't know the story behind a thing, we'll guess at it. If the story we are told doesn't fit -- as with Whistler's title -- we won't remember it and we'll put another in its place, like a name that doesn't suit an acquaintance. You can bet I have a clearer sense of Cubism after that anecdote about Picasso. The human informs the critical. Whistler claims to have made one thing; and while we may see that clearly, our wiring may dictate that we also see another.
I don’t think what I have to say about my own work is any more or less relevant than what Whistler said about his. All I can ever report is which decisions were conscious, and, for me, that is deliberately not many. All art is abstraction, the rendering of worldly things into "simpler, more evocative and organically final terms,” to quote John Graham. From three dimensions down to two; Whistler’s mother as an arrangement of white, grey and black blobs. This simplification has to do with clarity, not wishful thinking. This is where the meaning lies.
And, here’s something else worth saying — more often than not, the answer the artist gives is disappointing. Read Jackson Pollack's interviews. The spectacle of what he made is so much more engaging than most of what he said about it. "Don't expect writers to be interesting people," Stephen Dunn told us, his students. I think this is exactly what he meant. The most eloquent version of what the maker has to say may well be what they struggled to say with paint, on the page, or with torn up postage stamps.