But what of understanding, of being understood? Understanding what? Does it matter? Why should art be “understood” (and what does “understanding” mean in this context)?’

The quote in our study material is part of  a fax conversation which took place during 22.08.98 – 02.09.98 and was taken from Barlow’s Book, Objects For…and Other Things, (2008, 81-96I will use headings from the quote in the study material to discuss Understanding from my own view as an artist as well as how I would think a viewer would react. 

I used some freedom do add  context to the quote after reading an essay by Silke Dettmers where she writes…  “British sculpturer Phylida Barlow is vehement about words in relationship to visual arts: “Looking, I think is a slow burn […] Words are quicker. ‘But what of understanding, of being understood? Understanding what? Does it matter? Why should art be “understood” (and what does “understanding” mean in this context)?’  That over-used word ‘experience’ is a catch-all, and too limp and pathetic.  Yet it is the  significant word because it allows for imagination and speculation, which I believe the non-visual qualities of sculpture depend upon…’And:’..sculpture does not conform to an ordered process of looking: look, then think, then understand: 1+1=2 Sculpture is a 1+1=3 experience.”     (2007:11)


Working through the exercises I realise that I have more questions  than answers myself, understanding is very ambiguous. When referring to being understood in terms of artistic intent, as an artist, my task is to set meaning free.  This puts me in that space of when I am busy working and it’s my understanding I’m working with, but  I also see it as  a  ‘loss” which I  should know I have signed-up for,  because the moment I put a work out,  the viewer comes and find ‘new meaning’. And this meaning can sometimes astound (be rewarding/motivational/validate abilities) the artist or frustrate (seen as negative?)as understanding for the viewer is this finding other/more/different/nonsense thoughts about the work.  [That] viewer has many faces for me  ( husband, my friends, my family, a critic, theorist, academic, curator, student, art lover, etc) and  as well as many levels of understanding, due to difference (use of words to describe, culture, gender, political, economical, social, knowledge)  I think the words of TS Elliot can be apt here:  “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone.” (Bann:2003 ). As an artist there lies value when you find that form and content has married when the viewer is starting to interpret on a sensory and thinking level. I think that could be said of many of the works of great masters of art as well as contemporaries, but is is not always the reality/norm. It is interesting to see the role of social media on this level – artists share images of their work, sometimes write something about the work process or intentions, and the viewers reply.  I do think it example of Instagram/Facebook) creates bigger understanding between an artist and viewers, it is new and developing a platform from which many learning can take place in time (galleries and museums also took to this idea)


Bann (2003) discus meaning as being a process of problem solving, where one should keep cognisance of a movement outwards, towards a social dimension, rather than it being a private truth. I can put in  ‘meaning’ (with good intentions) in my work, but at the end of the day, the viewer will complete its meaning.  In her interview with Courtauld, Barlow refers to her concern that artists need approval – ambition can be driven through approval, and I think in turn this could inhibit experimenting and risk taking in developing your own voice over time. “Whereas now ambition is fulfilled through approval. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know, but, for me, more importantly is to ask if the driving force behind artists is for them to find approval so they can realise their ambitions? I hope it isn’t.”  (2017)  I do think our educational system should be wary of this concern. As a student of art, I value my tutor’s feedback and rely (a lot) on it when it comes to assessment and final yes/no to receive my degree.  There is a power that lies  with institutions, but the same power lies with the viewer and one can add the ‘consumer/art buyer/collector, which I think is relevant. Fisher (1987:116) discus failure which only exists in contrast to success and questions the “means we use to steer or guide our efforts.” He reminds the reader of Picasso, who kept his work, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, rolled up under his bed for years – fear for being misunderstood and seen as a failure? According to Fisher, failure comes from outside intention. He suggests that in the recognition of intention, it implies that, to some extent, an artist is accountable for his images or actions, and sees it as a ground on which failure can grow (1987:118 

Barlow also raise concerns about a using literary theories and ‘templates of art’:  “…can be placed over an art work, for the work to be relevant to a theory, regardless if that was ever the intention and what it actually is.”   It reminds me of Jerry Stalz’ article on so called Zombi art and art which started looking the same.   Artists need freedom to explore and develop their understanding of what they want to translate of their understanding into their work.  The artists I studied during this part, as well as my daily interactions with artists, confirmed the benefit of their own creative development. It poses a question if students of art are learnt/nudged into preferring (and then continue onto) making art that needs to be understand or to say something meaningful, and in the process miss out on the opportunity to develop an own voice. My viewing of artist talks on YouTube with the British Artist, Graham Crowley, convinced me of developing own ideas through a serious intent of continuous learning through the process of making art. 

Making sense of  form and idea of why this/that is art and evaluating what you see and  that experience in terms of your own judgment of taste and knowledge of art history or context, is part of an experience of and with art, and Phylida Barlow when she says: “looking is a slow burn”, gives context to her thinking about the difference between words and art when it comes to talking about understanding.  She speaks insightfully about her work, always with curiosity, as if she is still working out what it means.(Courtauld: 2017). Later in the article the viewer is considered in a way I think describes the process of understanding in another way :”….And then all that equipment and everything goes away, and at that point the work no longer belongs to me, it belongs to the space, and this imminent audience. They, i.e. the space and the audience, are the other protagonists, they activate the work. So eventually the audience becomes incredibly important, but it takes a long time before it reaches that point. I always say that in the end there are three protagonists: the work, the space, and the audience. That’s a threesome – a triple relationship to ignite.”  

 In the course it became clear to me how words and interpretation them becomes almost a minefield of different interpretations. But that one can make sense due to their form and our incredible, though very complex, visualisation ability.  When doing figure drawing I can talk/write about transcribing lines I see in the body into form on your canvas/paper, but is related to this ‘slow burn’.  One asks questions of form and light/dark as part of the making process and you can work soft an add fingers into the ‘transcribing’ of these marks, till you are satifsied that what you see in your work is what you wanted to capture and show to the viewer.  Our words have the power to make paintings mean many different things; and, even more to the ideas on understanding, how can words make paintings look so different?  Do we need to stay with the philosophy of aesthetics when we try to understand art?


In creating/art/writing, meaning can be found in that process.   Kentridge describes his drawing process of drawing and leaving erasure marks as integral to his work: this is also how he constructs moments that which gives the work a sense and a coherence, which the viewer can the use to make sense. Why I see understanding in this process, is that it becomes clear how the repetitive process moved through his creative process and found him to work in animations –  his very unique form of animation. Learning from this is that it came organically through trial and error and his spirit of playful openness.  Joseph Beuys, when he said, ‘Everyone is an artist’, I think the idea behind his words was to describe some essence of what it means to be a human being; that deep need and ability to create and be creative.  

In our culture we have reached a place where AI is threatening many tasks humans are doing – art as well. For me much  of the ‘understandability or non understanding of ‘why it matters to understand’ is wrapped in there – art is a human task which is a direct (instinctive or learned )  reaction upon and idea and always put into visual form. That human idea, was formed over time, by certain circumstances, which is not always sayable in words – which should therefore make sense that the viewer will then also not be able to understand.   It is the process of getting to the making, making choices of how you will use art to make sense and eventually making a life of out it. It does not mean I have  to know it when I start a work.


I like the following comment from P Barlow on how she perceived written comments on her work:  “I think there is a genuine problem with writing about work that cannot be explained or justified; and I make that kind of work. It’s difficult to write about work which is more about form and content than it is about subject, which is more about the action than about an idea, and is more about how the work leads, and how it takes control rather than be controlled…”. (Courtauld). 

I believe that having a question, like as in the case with science, we cannot always be expected to know the answers – art is searching and not claiming that it has answers.


Bann, Stephen. (2003), Nelson Robert S, and Shiff, Richard ( 2003) Critical Terms for Art History,  Meaning/Interpretation, Stephen Bannister,  SecondEdition, The University of ChicagoPress, Kindle version,

Burns, Chris. (1972). TV Hijack and On Pearl Harbour, Lisa Le Feuvre Failure Whitechapel Documents of Contemporary Art 1, pp 127-128. Whitechapel Gallery London MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Available atSCRIBD http://www.scribd.com/304977689/Lisa-Le-Feuvre-Failure-Whitechapel-Documents-of-Contemporary-Art-1

Dettmers, Silke. (2007). On the Necessity of Wonder. Papers of Surrealism  Issue 6 Autumn 2007, p 11 – 12.  Available at: http://www/research.uca.ac.uk/815/1/dettmers_complete/pdf  [Accessed on 10 Sept. 2020]

Fisher, Joel. (1987) Judgement and Purpose Lisa Le Feuvre Failure Whitechapel Documents of Contemporary Art 1, pp 116 -121.  Whitechapel Gallery London MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Available atSCRIBD http://www.scribd.com/304977689/Lisa-Le-Feuvre-Failure-Whitechapel-Documents-of-Contemporary-Art-1Another view was that of the art critic,

Jerry Saltz,article called Zombies on the Walls: Why does so much new abstraction look the same?https://www.vulture.com/2014/06/why-new-abstract-paintings-look-the-same.html

The Courtauld Institute of Art (2017) official website.[online] Available at:   https://courtauld.ac.uk/research/publications/immediations/immediations-online-2/immediations-2017-volume-4-number-2/phyllida-barlow [Accessed on 11 Sept. 2020]

(Picasso apparently said:’everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird?  Why does one love the night, flowers, everything…..without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting people have to understand..)

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