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Tag: Wondering about Meaning

Wondering about Meaning Part II

This post is part two of a two part blog series, “Wondering about Meaning” written by the Director of the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Linda Duke.

Part I

Information overload affects artists, too. Some of the best new work evidences that artists have searched for meaning in the onslaught and employed their skills in sorting through dense information and making sense of complexity and ambiguity.  Consider this work of art in the collection of the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art: Dendrochronological Data Sequences by Andrzej Zielinski, a sculpture that evokes a computer keyboard and screen in a brightly colored “head comics” sort of style. Careful examination reveals that the “screen” is an actual cross-section slice of a tree or, rather, of three trees that have grown as one, each with a core and concentric annual growth rings. Tree rings are well known to record the effects of climate conditions. It may therefore dawn on the viewer, especially after reading the title the artist has given this work, that two modes of data storage are referenced here: the one recorded and preserved in the natural growth of trees since that botanical life form evolved on Earth, and the one employed by the hard drive of an early 21st c. computer. Andrzej simply presents us with this observation, in a material object constructed with meticulous craftsmanship that may be overlooked because of its playful form. The artist juxtaposes two means of data storage and two assumptions we may make about objects, the latter being that a humorously distorted form carries no serious meaning and that classic material techniques such as bronze casting, marble carving, and gilding would be employed only in a serious-looking sculpture.

In their artworks artists juxtapose the most baffling data points and toss to us, as viewers, intriguing hints and inspiring possibilities instead of burying us in didactics and rationales. They give us experiences and visions to unpack.  In doing this, they continue an important and age-old function of art. They help us to understand our lives and the realities we experience. They encourage us to sense who we are. They suggest to us that the answer to “Who am I?” is never final. It grows and changes as we encounter the messy, complex, and confusing world around us. It’s an ongoing calculation of this plus those minus that. It’s worth wondering about.

Dendrochronological Data Sequences 2015 Andrzej Zielinski http://www.andrzejzielinski.net/portfolio/dendrochronological-data-sequences-2015/


Wondering about Meaning Part I

This post is part one of a two part blog series, “Wondering about Meaning” written by the Director of the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Linda Duke.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the relationship between information and meaning. We live in a time that is commonly described as one of information overload. Information has never been more easily available or felt so overwhelming. Many have observed with concern a tendency to feel indifferent, even when the information we receive describes suffering for which we know we should feel empathy and compassion. I’ve started to think that part of the reason for blunted feeling in the face of information overload is that our minds require meaning, not just information, in order for any of us to respond as a whole person – a person with feelings.  Information interpreted to create meaning feeds our humanity.  Perhaps an analogy might be this: As photosynthesis enables plants to absorb sunlight and create the green chlorophyll that is their defining feature as plants, so the human mind takes information and synthesizes meaning, a defining feature of humans across cultures. An important way humans express, communicate, and discover meaning is through art.

I’ve been involved with art for over 40 years, if I count my time as a student.  I’ve thought quite a lot about art: what art is and does. I’ve pondered the fact that I began to dedicate my life to art even before I could articulate why art matters. I was drawn to the art history I studied, sure, but that still didn’t help me understand why art matters. I had a sense that its value wasn’t just about beauty or, at least, not beauty as popular culture defines it. The more I got involved with art, the more I noticed that my thinking changed, thinking about beauty, yes, but also about art and about thinking itself, as a process.

I believe that meaning is both the alpha and the omega of our relationship with dense information, including works of art. With enough mental exercise in the process of noticing details and wondering about their meaning and purpose, people can learn to enjoy various features of art and to savor the ambiguity and richness of big information in other domains. We can come to enjoy the pleasures of ambiguity instead of finding it frustrating; we become habitual critical thinkers.

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of evidence that supports this premise.  I remember vividly an incident with a group of high school students with whom I was facilitating a series of Visual Thinking Strategies discussions in the galleries of the museum in which I worked.  One teenager had been listening to his fellow students’ interpretations for a long time, staring intently at the somewhat perplexing painting in front of us. He had slumped to a reclining position on the floor and I wondered if he might doze off. “Hey!” he suddenly cried out as he sat bolt upright, stopping the discussion in his excitement. “I just thought of something! Your whole life you could look at stuff and think about it.  And you would NEVER have to be bored!”

So here’s where all of this comes together for me: wondering about meaning. Wondering, not knowing, might be our most fertile mode of conscious thought. Wondering about a work of art is an aesthetic experience, and our notion of aesthetic thought might arguably be expanded beyond art, as the thought mode best suited for dealing with complexity, density, and ambiguity more broadly.  Advanced thinkers in science sometimes use “beauty” to describe their experiences and insights.  Aesthetic thought evidences an almost mathematical calculation that takes unlike bits of observed information and asks, “What might it mean to have this and that at the same time? To have a figure that looks both angry and euphoric? A feature that looks both ancient and futuristic? A microbe that isn’t a bacteria or a virus?” We can count on works of art, along with the frontiers of science and the on-going socio-political challenges of our time, to provide this kind of complexity and ambiguity. I argue that we can use our experiences with works of art to sharpen our thinking strategies for facing and making sense of complexity, ambiguity, and information overload in non-art arenas.  This is the reason why quality art experiences in public education are essential for empowering the future leaders and citizens of our society.

Continue to Part II…