Would you believe that is a dreaded question for most artists?
Really, most artists would rather be making art than going through the often "painful" process of explaining their work.
There is a reason for this. Art deals with visual language which speaks to emotion, intuition, and instinct. It is far from the frontal cortex where spoken and written language resides. Trying to put what's going on back there into words? Well, some things just don't translate.
When going to Art School a lot of artists pick up the use of "Art Speak" to fill the lingual void. This creates a lot of confusion for would-be collectors who are alienated by such talk and are left feeling as though they must be missing something. I have seen art enthusiasts ask an artist what they mean by a particular piece and then walk away baffled because they got the long answer. The long-drawn-out-story of the artist's journey from the beginning leading up to the piece in question, when all they really wanted was a nutshell. We don't do nutshell very well. They always seem rather incomplete.
My advice to art enthusiasts is if you want to ask an artist a question about their art, go ahead but just be patient.
- Remember how hard what they are trying to do is. Putting the non verbal regions of the brain into verbal context is no picnic.
- Also, look closely at the work and be sure you really want to know what is going on in there.
- If you actually do get a nutshell answer and you feel something is missing (like you are left with another question?) I would say that is a good answer.
I believe any good piece of art can - and should - have multiple layers of meaning. If the meaning really could be told in a nutshell, then it is not worthy of your contemplation. If you sense there is something more there, you are probably correct and the artist may not even be aware of it.
Recently I took a class where we did an exercise to help us discover what our art was about. (Yes this something we even take classes on!) I have been making art for many years and I still can't offer a very good "nutshell" of my work. I am much better at doing this for individual pieces. I have found the less I think about it, the better I do at making art.
I realize there is a lot of thinking going on in the less conscious regions of my brain and sooner or later a meaning to the work seems to reveal itself.
Watch this video if you want to see this process in action.
I just want to add this, this division between frontal lobe and the deeper more emotional part of the brain is often explained as Right-Brain/Left-Brain. With the Left-Brain being in charge of rational/analytical thinking and the Right-Brain in charge of intuitive/risk taking thought. (I have read the breakdown is not as simple as that, but as analogy, it works well to get a point across).
While the Left-Brain/frontal-lobe allows us to think critically and analyze it is usually a terrible place to start the process of solving a problem. For one thing you would be so focused on details that you couldn't see an answer right in front of your face.
Can you imagine that critical voice in your head picking apart every possible idea you come up with?
Teaching students to suppress that critical voice in their head is my biggest challenge as a drawing teacher. The critical thinking part of the process needs to come much later and it is essential to good drawing as well, but much easier to access. However once they learn how tap into their right brain kind of thinking, their whole way of seeing is transformed and they are in the "creative-zone" ripe for making some really good art.
You don't have to be an artist to experience this. If you can think of something you love to do, that you seem to do effortlessly, or with so much concentration that you lose all sense of time then that is a good indication you are in the Zone yourself. What experiences have you had with this? And what kind of activities do you do that put you there? Please share. I'd love to hear your thoughts!