Meaning of an artwork to the artist

Christopher asked:

Do you think a piece of art is more meaningful to the artist, or the person experiencing the artwork, most often? I’m specifically thinking about music. A musician can write a song that just expresses some idea and has no personal meaning to the artist, but a person can then listen to the song and relate to it in such a way that it becomes personally meaningful to him/her. I think this happens a lot, but I think a lot of the time an artists true meaning is lost or not communicated to the listener/ viewer. Also, having an ‘aesthetic experience’ which I’ve seen some philosophers write about may or may not occur for the artist.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Let’s start from the end of your question. You say you’ve seen some philosophers writing about aesthetic experiences, and I wonder why you didn’t ask them your question while you were watching them?

It could have been valuable for you, because as they were writing, they might have told you that thinking and writing is a different experience from reading another writer’s book. And your question would never have been born, because you would have realised that writing a song is not having an aesthetic experience, because the song doesn’t yet exist.

But you are entirely correct that the audience of a song, or play, or painting, or symphony will find it a meaningful experience, whether in the positive or negative sense. Whereas the composer, painter or poet may (at least sometimes) be quite indifferent and regard it as a piece of hackwork, done merely for the pay.

And so we arrive at the beginning of your question. Art is quite plainly of greater interest to an audience than to an artist, because there are many audience-people and very few artists. So you’ve already nailed it down from the quantity angle.

The other angle is that artists are rarely objective judges of the value of their own work. Some overestimate their own talent; some are very casual about it; others might pursue an obsession for their whole life and sacrifice health and happiness for it. But this is usually quite irrelevant. In the end, the people who pay to watch or hear are the ones who make the final decision. This is because art is not something artists dreamed up for their own pleasure, but the people and communities who have a need for this kind of entertainment, edification, ritual or commemoration. So the need comes first, the artist later. Necessarily the thing he or she makes must be needed and to meet that need. And artists who supply that need well, and often, might finish up as ‘the greats of our culture’ and sometimes even as millionaires.


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