For the last three shows my works have all been identified by the official names or adjectives descriptive of the physical place upon which they’re based. This I’ve done under advisement of those long established in the art world, and while I’ve submitted to the practice, it is a deliberate reversal, a choice that is antithetical to how I naturally approach and participate in my own paintings; each piece for me is a celebration of an ephemeral, and largely an emotional experience and not entirely dependent on the exact degree of latitude and longitude.
With the most successful pieces, my viewers have a similar experience in reaction to my depictions as well. The best case scenario is that my work draws a sense of familiarity, whether or not the viewers are correct in their identification of the real place. With satisfaction people say, “oh, I know that place.” The more timid want to be affirmed by leading with “Isn’t that…. such and such….?" Yet their questions also come from their personal connection to how the painting <feels> or refreshes a sensory-laden memory.
So, why am I told by several in The Establishment that the purpose of a visual artwork title is for identification and organizational purposes only. Anything else “gets in the way of” the viewer’s experience. We ought not predispose, lead on, or narrow their own experience of the work.
Why then do we not apply the same standards for titles to other forms of art? Movies, books, music? Are their titles ever meant to be identifiers only?
Does Fight Club need to be more blasely titled “Adult Men Experimenting with Anger Management” or ought we suggest to Rowlings that replace the chamber in Harry Potter: Chamber of Secrets with something more general and contemporary? Perhaps “MPR”? Yes, in fact more children have direct experiences with MPR’s. That would be better. Let them connect more quickly with that they know. How many of us have actually been in a chamber?! I feel locked behind stonewalls at the mere mention. How can I read the book with an open mind?!
We make songs our own when we say “This is OUR song” or “This is MY theme song”; we pay little attention to song titles, nor do we expect albums to be simply organized by “Track 1”, “Track 2”, and so on. Timberlake’s Cry Me a River has nothing to do with rivers! I feel misled. Sound of Silence sure has a LOT of sound to it; I was expecting something more John Cage-ish, after all the musicians were contemporaries.
Trends in titling visual artwork range all over the place, from references to the widely-recognized cultural tropes they depict to meaningless numbering systems. Some artist’s work is hugely dependent on its title, the title being key to the irony or allusion. Some artist’s work is done with the intention of giving the view no hints for interpretation whatsoever.
So, who “deserves”- who “retains the rights to”- the process of interpreting an artwork? The maker or the viewer? Which party has primacy? The artist making the meaning or the consumer’s meaning-making?
How much ought viewers be trusted with any information the artist wants to give? If non-prejudicing titles are the current trend, what is it about our culture that is asking for/requiring this? What about other cultures allowed more informative titles to be used?