still-life The candle flame could represent the light of Christ and the bread and wine, Communion. The scholar Erwin Panofsky called these kind of references ‘disguised symbolism’ as they are not literal nor overt but would have been detected by contemporary viewers.

Symbolism in Dutch Art (Clara Peeters)

Does all art have meaning? A question which arose at the last ‘Girl Power’ talk, was ‘does all art necessarily have a meaning?’ I replied that everything has a meaning (even the tiniest action or event – but then, I am a very Eastern-minded person believing in Karma, destiny, re-incarnation etc, which not everybody does). I get the point of the question though – sometimes it seems if art historians and appreciators read too much into every art work. What if the artist/maker didn’t intend those interpretations, and we are living in a ‘fantasy world’ – or worse, distorting the original straightforward function of the artwork?

There are many types of meaning, but here I’ll look at the two obvious ones. 1) The conscious symbolism which the artist intended the work to have and which we can be more or less sure about through historical and cultural fact 2) Meaning gained over time through interpretations i.e. ‘acquired meaning’.  The latter is the most contentious, as how can we be sure there is in fact definitely meaning intended and it’s not just the viewer’s own fanciful imagination seeing what it wants to see? The real danger is, we could potentially read ANYTHING into the work – there are no boundaries!

If you are a very academically minded person, you may want to stick to the first approach. But for me, the whole beauty of looking at art is the interchange between viewer and work, and the evolution of that through time. I’m sure the artists themselves would prefer their art not to be pinned down to identifiable certainties. Obviously there are a whole range of symbols and meanings lost to us through changing cultures and values  and we have to work hard at understanding these, which involves study and a rigorous approach. That is a necessary duty of the art historian. However, we are all, as viewers, entitled to interpret and find meaning in whatever way we wish –  as long as we keep ourselves in check and  accompany our own feelings with some academic study. Let’s remember that when an artist executes a work, there are a whole range of meanings which are expressed UNCONSCIOUSLY. No-one, not even the maker, can categorically prove their existence.