CG Jung on What Art ‘Means’

I’ve written here before on meaning in poetry and it’s a subject that continues to fascinate me. Many of our discussions at Culture Club meetings concern meaning (particularly the heated debates around meaning in Bob Dylan’s Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts), and I still suspect that this is not necessarily the question we should be asking.

Rather than ask the question ‘what does this mean?’ when faced with art of any kind, I’m more and more drawn to the view that the real question should be ‘what is this?’

Here’s a quote by C.G. Jung, from his lecture ‘On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry’, 1922 (published in The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature):

We have talked so much about the meaning of works of art that one can hardly suppress a doubt as to whether art really ‘means’ anything at all. Perhaps art has no ‘meaning’, at least not as we understand meaning. Perhaps it is like nature, which simply is and ‘means’ nothing beyond that. Is ‘meaning’ necessarily more than mere interpretation – an interpretation secreted into something by an intellect hungry for meaning? Art, it has been said, is beauty, and ‘a thing of beauty is a joy for ever’. It needs no meaning, for meaning has nothing to do with art.

Where does that leave the appreciation of art? Perhaps in trying to understand how a piece of art works, how it achieves its effects, its structure, form, etc. Meaning comes into that, but not as the primary focus of our attention.

What do you think – does it matter what art ‘means’?

5 responses to “CG Jung on What Art ‘Means’”

  1. Most artwork is designed merely to alter our moods–pleasant and informative entertainment. That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with dulce et utile.

    To move beyond that, we have to engage the problem of artistic meaning. How frustrating to be confronted with an ambiguous allegory, and what a joy to have a teacher interpret literature or a docent explain a painting. That is when art becomes a digestible story–broadening our personal sphere, giving us new insights, building our culture, giving us bigger minds.

    To me, art is what alters my reality. Meaningless stuff does not have the power to do that.

  2. This is a very valid point, Helen. I think that I probably agree that totally ‘meaningless’ art is powerless. But there are two points that concern me when considering art purely in terms of its meaning:

    1. Often the ‘meaning’ of a work is the least interesting part. For example, you could sum up the meaning of the novel Lord of the Flies very succinctly: “The veneer of civilisation is very thin” would probably encompass all it has to say. But the book is so much more interesting than that due to the way it conveys this meaning. I would say, in this case, that the literary technique is what makes it so powerful, rather than its meaning. I guess I’m saying here that the meaning is important, but only as a point of focus for the form, character, tone, language, etc.

    2. What about all the many great works of art where the meaning isn’t clear, and arguably never can be. Obvious examples can be found in almost any modernist work, from Rilke’s Duino Elegies, to the works of JH Prynne, both of which we have discussed here. But one could argue equally that, say, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or Milton’s Paradise Lost are highly ambiguous in terms of a definitive meaning, and we cannot say that this diminishes their greatness.

  3. This is a point that really interests me. How do we respond to a work of art – any work whether music, painting or written – and why?

    My idea has come to be that it’s all to do with questions. In other words, us being confronted with a work of art and then knowing enough or feeling enough to ask the right questions.

    People who stand in front of a Jackson Pollock and say “What’s it supposed to be?” are not asking the right question.

    I think it’s about being open to art and being open to being challenged. Asking yourself the right questions.

    I agree with Tim, I suppose.

    On that line I am surprised that Helen W thinks it is a good thing when someone else interprets or explains a work of art for you. For me the power of art comes from what it brings to you, not what you’re told by someone. Although I read enough literary criticism of my favourite books, etc afterwards but that’s just adding to the whole thing. You don’t want to be wholly spoon-fed, do you?

    Tim, this is a great website,by the way…

  4. Meant it and will try to involve myself on other topics. Dylan might very well be next…

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