Can an Artwork have (a) Personality?

(taken from my Sensible Blog)

Can an artwork have (a) personality? Such a simple question offers such terrible hidden dangers.

There are at least three. Firstly, the definition of ‘artwork’ is very difficult, based upon the definition of art, perhaps fine art. Slightly less problematic is ‘personality’. Attached to that is a third danger; the distinction ‘have personality’ as against ‘have a personality’.

It is fair to warn that some of this has never been satisfactorily solved, and is unlikely to be solved here, above operational definitions. Let’s start as simply as possible and introduce complexity when it cannot be avoided.

The literal answer is no, artwork cannot have a personality. For the Oxford English Dictionary defines personality as the ‘quality, character, or fact of being a person as distinct from a thing’. Whatever an artwork is, it is a thing. The history of the term makes it clear that a person is a conscious, thinking being.

However ‘have personality’ is different to ‘have a personality’. A thing cannot have a personality – there is no faculty for it. But it could be that when we define artwork we can see a place where the personality of the maker or viewer could be stored and recalled. It’s a similar point to this: where is the music on a CD? Until the bits are converted into sound via a laser and heard there is only the potential to reproduce music. The artist encodes music as bits. The listener plays the record, hears music. In between we have an artwork. My argument will be that this is true of all artworks and I will need to make the case that all are transcriptions of some kind.

We first need to examine figurative meaning. When I describe a storm as angry or a garden as charming, my listener should know that I do not literally mean the clouds are filled with a human emotion, or that the garden is attempting be alluring. Figurative language is effective shorthand for one person to communicate an idea to another, based upon our common ability to personalize things and ascribe motivations to objects. The idea is not shared systematically but rather as an impression that could be measured differently by each person.

Yet figurative language is used very often and evidently works quite well. Particularly in describing artworks; it is acceptable to talk of a ‘sad film with a happy ending’ without having to systematically go through the script, the acting, cinematography and so on, linking each to the person involved. You may even read that a film ‘could not make up its mind’ or ‘lacked identity’ and not assume that the celluloid was sentient.

Studies by Piaget have found that children in a ‘pre-operational stage’ will ascribe personality to objects up the age where they can be taught otherwise. Even then there remains a temptation to blame something for being in the wrong place or maliciously rolling under furniture. Socks are particularly good at this.

In some cultures the personality of objects has been maintained as natural spirits that animate all things. For example astrology personifies the stars and planets, which are supposed to influence human behavior. We still describe people as ‘jovial’ or ‘mercurial’ and say that mental illness is ‘lunacy’. Many faiths involve a Creator whose handiwork is evidenced in the universe. In this case there is personality expressed in all things as a coherent whole. (The transcription is problematic – bad things are evidence of ‘mysterious ways’).

The attack on animism in western philosophy begins with Thales deterministically predicting an eclipse in 585BC. Even so he found the best explanation for magnetism was that it was directed by a soul. While over time the scientific view has gained the upper hand the mysteries of quantum physics have had a similar effect on Deepak Chopra, Fritjof Capra et al.

Figurative meaning is at the heart of all art, which communicates efficiently via impressions and shared psychology. This is a crux of my argument, that psychology is necessary to understanding the presentation of artworks.

There are many conflicting opinions on the definition of art. Fortunately we don’t have to determine a definition for all art, only that an artwork is something capable of holding the personality of the artist and interacting with that of the viewer.

Rather redundantly, OED defines art as, “Skill; its display and application.” The Cambridge does better with, “the making of objects, images, music, etc. that are beautiful or that express feelings”, although surely they allow both. The phrase ‘express feelings’ is the point that needs to be expanded. Both definitions are limited in that they only deal with the act of creation without mentioning the need for perception. Most sophisticated theories of art require some transaction between artist and audience.

Marcel Duchamp sums it up nicely;

All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives a final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists.

Duchamp is quite certain that the creator is a medium and does not possess the meaning that the work will take on once seen. The meaning comes from ‘the labyrinth beyond time and space’, which I would more humbly interpret as the depths of personal psychology.

Wollheim examines numerous definitions of art and finds fault with most. He holds two criteria as sufficient when no artistic tradition exists; ‘natural expression’ by the artist, ‘a secretion of an inner state’ met by ‘correspondence’ in the viewer, how it ‘seems to reiterate something in us’ (p47). Where there is a tradition, when we act according to that context we are creating art.

Richard Wollheim, Art and its objects, p.1, 2nd edn, 1980, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521297060

For my purposes the ‘inner state’ and ‘something in us’ he describes I would take as psychological formations or complexes. From what I understand of Wollheim as a pshychoanalytical writer I don’t think he would have disagreed. When we act in the context of existing work I would describe that as part of the transcription process, the use of symbols shared in a culture is involved in the encoding.

I think Duchamp is more succinct. “… the artist may shout from all the rooftops that he is a genius: he will have to wait for the verdict of the spectator in order that his declarations take a social value and that, finally, posterity includes him in the primers of Artist History.”

At a simple level the artwork must hold personality because it is formed by someone, and seen by another. Whether the artwork is made or identified or appropriated a mind has been involved in forming it. Attempts to remove personality from the work, for example John Cage’s use of chance, only leads to that being made part of the work. And until the work is communicated it is like the bits of a CD – potential.

What form does the transcribed personality take in artwork? That brings the concept of a personality codec, and that’s a whole new essay.