Creativity and Meaning

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Take a look at this image and think about what you see.

We’ll get back to figuring it out in a moment, but first a question: Where does art exist? Is it in the image on the page or is it in the mind of the person viewing that image?

It’s almost an absurd question, but the implications are serious. Because what art means depends on whose space it shares. And if art lives in the mind, then every viewer is carrying around a different meaning. Imagine the chaos! No one will be able to agree on anything.

In fact, there will be some people who look at art and declare it’s not even art. And worse yet, some people will look at random pictures and objects never intended to be art and they will call them art.

How horrible!

In one famous case, a sculptor put a toilet on display in a museum. Some people did see it as art. Others felt that anyone who saw a toilet as art had to be insane.

So what does all this have to do with the broken-faced bunny?

Well, let me show you the artist creating this piece…

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She’s part of the library program I supervise every Saturday and this Easter they did Easter bunnies that should have looked friendly and cheerful.

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And most of them did come out just that way. But our little artist ran out of green paint and so her creation became something else.

In my mind (and the minds of most adults I’ve shown it to) her bunny is unsettling and haunting. It reminds me of the poster for the creepy sci-fi movie Donnie Darko.

But our diligent artist surely has never seen the movie or even envisioned these negative emanations when she set out to make her Easter Bunny.

So we come back to the question: Where does this art exist? In its creator’s intent or in the fearful contours conjured into being by a grown-up’s experiences?

Donnie Darko PosterFor a writer, the question comes up too. Is the message of a book what the writer intended or what you see in your head when you read it?

For literature readers of the last 50 years, this is a mostly settled question: The author is dead once the book is published and their intent matters not. The reader owns the meaning.

The issue continues to fascinate me, however, because of the many ways the meaning of a piece of writing, art or music seems to escape the intent of the maker’s creativity, for good or for ill.



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