If you ever find yourself struggling to understand what a piece of art is supposed to “mean,” you can try out my one (and only) philosophy about art, which is that:
art is a mirror.
I think every great piece of art is a mirror that helps you (the observer) see yourself more clearly than you ever could have without it.
The normal approach with art is to try to figure out what the artist is saying, as if it’s like a puzzle we have to interpret. But I don’t believe in that approach. When I experience a piece of art, I think of it in terms of what the art is saying about me, right now. This is just like a mirror, right? Mirrors aren’t designed with any content of their own. The job of a mirror-maker isn’t to tell you what you should see when you look at it. If a mirror is working correctly, you see what you are. I think art is the same kind of experience.
In fact, this function of art to reflect ourselves is, in my opinion, the reason why it’s so valuable to society. Who wouldn’t want an opportunity to experience themselves with a deeper, more expansive perspective on their life, death, and purpose? When art is at its best, it does just that.
Personally, all of my favorite works of art (paintings, novels, records, games, DJ sets, etc.) – the ones I would consider to be truly great – have had this effect of allowing me to experience my own self in totally unique and often transformative ways. Maybe it’s just me, but when I look at Girl Before a Mirror, what makes it such a sublime experience is the way I can see the indescribable truth of myself bouncing off the colors and forms.
(The irony that my favorite painting features a literal mirror was totally lost on me until I started writing this… and my favorite Lichtenstein makes a lot more sense too…)
Ultimately my point is that all good art is co-creative. It is only truly made into art once it is experienced by an observer. A lot of people think of art as a one-way speech given by the artist to impart some kind of objective “meaning” that we’re all supposed to figure out. I disagree. The works I love are always a dialogue, a conversation, a form of communication between you and the artist. A great artist may intend to say something through their work, but they always leave enough space for you to respond and it is your response to a work that makes it art, in my opinion.
In my own work, this is something that is always on my mind. One of my most relentless ambitions is to find that balance where I’m creating something that has both the depth and symbolism to be meaningful, while leaving enough “space” and openness that allows you to see your own personal experiences, fears, hopes, dreams, and emotions reflected back at you. Through a million different techniques, that’s what I am always reaching for.
If you want to experiment with this idea, go to an art space and try to filter everything you see through this lens. Forget any notions about the artist’s intentions and instead just feel what the piece is reflecting back at you, now, here, in this moment. For me, that’s always a trippy experience, I always learn something new about myself, and makes the value of art that much more impactful in my life.