Making and Meaning

What is the relationship between an artist’s creative practice and the meaning of a work of art? There is a long tradition in Western society that considers artistic creativity to be inspired. Artistic inspiration offers to the meaning of a work of art a certain authority that it otherwise would not have.  The inspired artist works in a frenzy of passion and madness as he or she becomes a channel for otherworldly intimations (see Plato’s Phaedrus for a classic description).  The idea of inspiration is ancient, but it was highly influential in the 19th century, and even today the language of inspiration is a popular way to talk about the making of art.

In the 1960s, a form of painting called Photo Realism (also Hyperrealism, Superrealism, and others) developed that turned the notion of the inspired artist on its head.  Many Photo Realists, especially those seminal figures such as Malcolm Morley, Chuck Close, and Audrey Flack, start their paintings by making corresponding grids on a photograph and a canvas.  Then they begin the laborious task of translating from the photograph to the canvas.  Linda Chase writes that Chuck Close “recreates a commercial printing process, airbrushing the three colors from a basic tricolor separation of red, yellow, and blue tints in layers to achieve full color.”   To facilitate the “unbiased” reproduction of a painting, some Photo Realists, such as Malcolm Morley, would reverse the image and paint it upside down.

The subject of the Photo Realist painting is the photograph and not the real world.  Photo Realism presents the possibility of leaving the real world without sensing the loss of it.  By translating directly from the camera, the Photo Realist produces an image with the visual impact and size of an original that ironically derives from a copy.  Photo Realism exemplifies a postmodern aesthetic, which has been compared to the myth of Narcissus because “Narcissus’ reflection in the water … disintegrates the moment one reaches out to grasp it.”

The foregoing comments are not meant to disparage works of Photo Realism or works produced by “inspired artists.”  The point is, rather, that our assumptions about the creative practice of the artist somehow creep into our interpretations of the art.  The moment of victory for the Photo Realist is when the viewer discovers that the painting is nothing more than an impersonal  “mechanical production” and that the image is deceptive.  Whereas inspiration confers authority upon a work, the opposite method employed by the Photo Realist discredits the image.  These issues arise even more forcefully in memoir writing when an author admits to falsifying certain details, which leaves the audience feeling upset and thinking the book is “meaningless” (even if it is a good story).

So, it would seem that people want works of art that are meaningful.  But what makes a work of art meaningful, and in what sense is art making also meaning making?  Contrary to the examples that I have discussed, is it possible to separate the process from the product so that the meaning of a work of art  is only conditioned by what happens after the product is “finished”?  I think there is an intuitive relation between the artist’s creative practice and the meaning of the work of art, but articulating this relation is very difficult.  Your thoughts would be most appreciated.



  • Jim Watkins is the assistant editor and a regular contributor at Transpositions. Originally, Jim is from southern California and southeastern Texas, but sometimes he feels most at home in the landscape and coffee shops of the Pacific Northwest. He met his wife Emily at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he studied Studio Art (concentration in painting). For his PhD research, he is examining the relationship between divine and human creativity from the perspective of divine kenosis.

Written By
More from Jim Watkins
The Forum Presents: Endlessly Dreaming
We are excited to announce a free public lecture on Wednesday 3...
Read More
Join the Conversation


  1. says: bruce

    Martin Buber (in I&Thou) says, “The eternal origin of art is that a form presents itself to the artist, wanting to become a work through him…and the receptive beholder may be bodily confronted once more.” This seems a mixture of the “inspiration” tradition and the process-oriented tradition of modernity. Buber’s concept of the two worlds — the I-It world and the I-Thou world — are helpful, I think, in delineating the issue under discussion. If art resides primarily in the world of things — the It-world — then art is really only an object among objects. If however it also resides in the Thou-world of real presence, of persons and spirit, then it also participates in elements of relationality that are eternal, transcendent. As a painter I have always hoped for the possibility that my experience of making the work can be translated to others — infecting them with the same love. When I first read I&Thou I was stunned that someone had articulated what I had always known since my earliest days of making: that we live simultaneously in at least two worlds, and that the urge to make things — to realize forms — is elemental and straddles those worlds. Not wanting to romanticize art making, but attempting clarity, I would simply add that the artist is, at her best, a servant of the work. If that comports well with inspiration, so be it. But it will also always be deeply embedded in the thing-ness of things — in making and breaking and re-making of things.

    1. says: Jim

      Bruce, thanks for bringing Buber into the conversation. I also think that Buber’s description of creativity provides a helpful middle ground between theories of creativity that over-emphasize the autonomous agency of the “inspired” artist or the autonomy of the work of art. Buber’s very notion of an I-Thou world suggests to me that human creativity is a kind of dialogue that generates the multi-valent meanings we find in works of art. Thanks, again, for sharing your thoughts on this issue!

Leave a comment
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

1,548,734 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments