Full Steam Arts offers arts classes to artists of all ages & experience levels.
I invite you to open up to your creativity and have more joy in your life!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The case for meaninglessness

After completing their drawings, people will say, “I don’t know what it means!” and look to me to explain it to them. I can do that and have done it occasionally when I am caught off guard, sometimes to “show off” my knowledge to a colleague. I always feel guilty afterwards, like I betrayed the image & the artist.

The thing about it is this: I have no idea what it means. I can have educated guesses based on archetypal symbolism and my relationship with the artist. But, still, it is just that--a guess. Only the artist can know her meaning and sometimes there is no meaning at all!

So why bother with interpretations?

Interpretations can feel containing, safe. Think of a doctor giving you a diagnosis and prognosis. “That lump is cancer and you have 3 months to live!” Well, maybe not always welcome information, but a label or a box that defines a series of symptoms into a “thing” which has a typical course of action. We spend much of our energy either inviting or rebelling against others’ interpretations our choices in life.

And when I am wrong about an interpretation?

What a position to put the artist in! Now they have to disagree with me and find a way to explain or justify their own interpretation. And often people are highly suggestive; they will forgo their initial “hit” to consider my idea.

Moreover, when I make an interpretation of an image, I am placing primary importance on the function of the images’ message, rather than on the creation process or simple existence of the image.

What are the alternatives?

Sitting with the unknown, the discomfort of not labeling, not being the expert, letting go of preconceived ideas about things like, say, slender columns with two round spheres on the bottom. Sometimes a cigar, is just a cigar, as Freud himself is infamously quoted.

And were would this take us?

Meaninglessness, curiosity, exploration, surprise, release. We can reach a place where the most beautiful painting was the one where you set out to explore grief or death or pain. We find a place within us that crosses back and forth from darkness and light, feminine and masculine, effort and relaxation. We can let the meaning unfold slowly, taking shape from one day to the next, only to change again in a month. Or we can simply PLAY, give in to impulses. Experience a melding of body and mind through simple exploration of colors, shape and texture. Explore things on paper that we can’t safely do in real life.

Like my five year old who unabashedly takes up the entire kitchen table with her papers of swirls, smudges, rainbow unicorns with diamond wings and butterfly-flower-swans. She is busy enjoying her imagination and exploring her capacity to create without the need to know why she does this or what exactly she is making.

Flow, health, wholeness, and acceptance. We embrace our rapidly changing states of mind with grace and humor. We laugh, we cry and we are silenced into awe. Making meaning can be healing, but it is not the object of the creative process. We create because we must, because we can, because it makes us feel better without always knowing why.


  1. What an exciting and unique approach to creativity!! I love the sense of freedom that not having to know what something means can give you.

    Thanks for writing such a wise and wonderful post!

  2. ahhh, Danielle. I feel each word you write and connect so deeply with them... your wise words underneath "And where would this take us" remind me of the joy of ambiguity, not needing "the" answer or even "an" answer....

    SO many thanks to you for putting this into words simultaneously simple and elegant.