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Making Sense: Art and Meaning

By: Charm Chandler

Twitter: @TheLatestByte

Post Date: 2024-02-12

What do we mean by meaning?


The meaning behind a word should only mean one thing, right? But why is it then, that when we classify this word, we divide it into two distinct categories of denotation and connotation (explicit and implicit meaning)? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a word’s “denotation is its plain and direct meaning or meanings” while a word’s “connotation is what the word implies or suggests." The purpose here is to showcase the complexity behind what should be a straightforward concept, and how many people, I claim, have confused meaning’s colloquial sense of clarification with one of its alternate definitions, which refers to the emotional and purposeful “weight” behind a word that measures “significance”.


Though the word “meaning” has the function of clarifying another word or situation, it can be used in various contexts, such as “Can you tell me what you mean by that?” to “What do you think it means?” The latter has become a secondary default for many to impose a personal definition, thus allowing many to rewrite the truth. This does not mean that we should only stick to the former question or that one of the two should only ever be used but it is important to acknowledge that meaning lives in two domains: clarification and significance. 


It seems that there is a trend in which the latter allows the interlocutor to reveal personal interpretations about the significance of the world around them. But does this clarification about meaning, and how meaning often refers to significance, reveal anything? Take, for example, the following paragraph.


“Everything and nothing has meaning”.  Some proponents of other schools of thought might find the statement reveals nothing new. Imagine, for example, that there would be a nihilist in the pop philosophy context who would disagree with that sentence. In that context, both parties have agreed that “meaning” is being used to refer to significance, and there would be no need to clarify what “meaning” is. The sentence could then be reworded to mean “everything and nothing has significance”. Acknowledging that this isn’t the exact definition of what meaning explains is the first step to realizing that colloquially, most individuals tend to misuse and define meaning as a “significance” that crafts value. 


I’m interested in how we, as human beings, use a particular notion of meaning to refer to an intuitive emotional “weight” that colloquially appears to measure “significance” in the context of an external thing. This allows us to extrapolate the feeling of significance that stands in for meaning, which can affirm the perceptions behind significance, and perhaps, just maybe, the value behind that.


Let’s begin with art, though it doesn’t end there.


Meaning: Is it Imposed?


Imagine a painting of a bowl of fruit in an art museum. The fine strokes on the canvas indicate a fine mastery of artistic skill that uses chiaroscuro to depict the depth of interplay between light, shadow, and fruit. If the question “what is the meaning of this painting” was asked, a few possible answers would arise. Most likely, one of the immediate ones would be that the painting means “nothing important,” that it achieves the simple depiction of a bowl of fruit, and that any other meaning simply imposes a narrative. However, the negation of there being a narrative assigns importance to how narrative and meaning equate to the sense of value that the painting might clarify, although it requires that the observer discovers it in their act of seeing, only to impose their thoughts afterward. While the thoughts may not necessarily be arbitrary, the observer becomes the narrator who intuitively uses their sense of interpretation to provide meaning (“clarification”) to the painting.


However, an art student might have a different answer. They might exclaim that the meaning behind the painting is a matter of significance, and that understanding the time and effort needed to implement the artistic technique of chiaroscuro requires a critical eye and attention to detail that the clarified narrative sense of meaning may not necessarily provide. This would infer an emphasis on understanding that the word meaning, or clarification, is different from another version of meaning, or in this case, significance. 

Otherwise said, the main difference between clarification and significance relies on the observer’s knowledge of a thing’s creative and technical aspects. With the example on art and meaning, the average individual will attempt to clarify the meaning behind a painting, thus imposing a narrative-based meaning from the elements within the art piece that unifies the whole. 


But those who understand the technical aspects behind the painting, in this case, chiaroscuro, understand the significance behind mastering that skill, which lies outside of the painting, and is now with the artist. While either interpretation functions to elucidate the observer’s thoughts, it can be frustrating to determine the fine line between clarification and significance, and which one is applicable over the other.



Meaning or Clarification?


The word significance replacing meaning is the inevitable result of a pre-chosen definition that an interlocutor carries with them because of their personal life experience. Like words, we evolve our perceptions of what it means to live, and we’re always constantly shifting definitions. Our experiences expose us to alternative connotative meanings that deviate from the standard consensus denotation of a word, and this results in the displacement of “clarification” to an imposed “significance”, which can result in some confusion. This generates statements such as “this means this because I—”, when, retranslated, can mean “this holds significance and/or the absence of significance because—”. Of course, it is possible to simply ask for clarification, but again, that’s not using the word meaning in its original context.


Communication that displaces the original definition of a word occurs naturally and automatically. Because words evolve in time and eventually come into conflict with the traditional usage, those who argue that it’s all “semantics” have made it difficult to untangle what meaning means. Meaning itself, however, has also made it difficult to determine what it might refer to when further removed from clarification and significance, with these two words serving as my own imposed dichotomy. Meaning could just be a taxonomic class whose definitions overlap in the realm of semantics, pragmatics, expression, and so forth, and although the average individual may appeal to the idea of a “common usage”, it is difficult to point to a single definition behind the word meaning. 




“Connotation vs. Denotation: Literally, What Do You Mean?” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster,,the%20word%20carries%20with%20it. Accessed 29 Jan. 2024.


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