CG Jung on What Art ‘Means’

by ttucker23 on March 27, 2008

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’?

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