Note/Thought - Meaning and intention by Ally McGinn

It's important for me to remember that the things I am interested in can be very distinct from the meaning in the pieces I create.  The things I am interested in can lead to the pieces because the process of making art is also a form of research.

This would be an argument inline with ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ in which the artists meaning becomes irrelevant when the viewer is introduced to the work, because that introduction brings a new set of paradigms and perspectives are introduced, so the meaning becomes something else anyway.

In practical terms, and very relevant to the moment, this shows the importance of being in the studio, working, and not getting too obsessed with what it all means.

Meaning (as imposed by the viewer) and context (as imposed by me) can be two very distinct things.

Research - Meaning/Taste - Family Resemblance and Beetles in Boxes by Ally McGinn

In researching taste, aesthetics and attempting to understand what art is, i've come upon the term ‘necessary and sufficient conditions’ a few times. These are the conditions for determining a definition. If both can be defined with regards to a certain subject (A for example) then through the exploration of necessary and sufficient conditions we will be able to find all the things that are ‘A’ by excluding the things that aren't ‘A’. (Philosophy Bites, 2017)

Wittgenstein disagreed with this rigid stance. Using the example of games he shows that there are always things that don't fit the definition. We recognise what games are not through the definition of them, or at least not always, but through the experience of hearing the ways other people use the word, which leads us to an understanding of what Wittgenstein called a ‘family resemblance’. (Janaway, 2006)

Wittgenstein saw language as a living thing, and therefore as subject to the ‘change in variation’. Meaning, according to Wittgenstein, is reliant on use, in that whatever meaning we use is one that is ‘right’. Meaning can be local, we share meaning with those close to us, and have our own meanings for those words based on our own lives. (Janaway, 2006)

Wittgenstein suggests a thought experiment, an extension of the ‘private language argument’. In it he asks us to pretend that we each have a box, we all describe the thing inside the box as a beetle, and yet we cannot ever know what is inside other people's boxes. Whether the thing inside the box actually is what we think of as a beetle or is something else the word ‘beetle’, in this instance, becomes both a word to describe what is inside the box and the implication of a small creature with six legs. (Floyd, 2006)

In this experiment the box can be seen as a metaphor for our brains. A pertinent example of this would be our interpretation of colour. We all, mostly, agree on the standard definitions of colour, but the argument becomes more obvious when colours get specific. Working in an art institution for nearly five years I've regularly heard disagreements about colours, and we have no real way of knowing that what we see as green is what someone else is seeing. Pain is another obvious example, while there are obviously degrees of pain we have no reliable way of comparing our pain to that of another.

Words, or more accurately their meaning, operate in the same way. How often have any of us said something that someone has taken the wrong way. It wouldn't be unreasonable to suggest that we all have.

It isn't that much more of a leap to suggest that images are the same. As much of the research on this blog has shown, images, and by extension other artworks, have meaning that is integral to their existence. That meaning only exists when interpreted by a human, and those interpretations come through the reading of information. That information can be digital, visual, auditory, tactile or any number of sensory inputs. To define art as simply something beautiful or enjoyable on a basic level denies our own intelligence, and our capability to interpret information.

Art, it could therefore be argued, contains, disseminates, and encourages the transfer of information. While there are many artworks whose information revolves around beauty, or the weirder sensory experience, there are many others that require a form of data processing, or interaction, from the viewer. If nothing else it's clear that is more information to be explored than we realise.

I would argue that one of the purposes of art is to highlight that processing potential in regards to the world around us, and other areas of daily life.

The reading of art encourages a creative thinking process, which can be applied to the world beyond the art gallery.

There is a reason we can nominate the everyday as art, I would argue that this is because these objects have an element of inherent meaning attached to them. The nomination of them as ‘Art’ is a common activity, but maybe it is enough to think of them as art, or see them as art, at an individual level. We bring the meaning to the work, so can we bring it to other things just by imagining it.

If I think that something I'm experiencing is Art, but never say it, is it any less Art than the painting on the wall? Does it matter that I'm an artist? Whose to say where the artwork lies?


This section was added in addition to my initial post on taste. The information here is mostly from two short sources, that inspried more thinking. Later parts of this text slip into assumptive writing, so this post is more - thoughts inspired by research.


Floyd, R. (2006) Wittgenstein : The Private Language Argument [Online] Philosophy Now. Available from:  [Accessed 03.11.17].

Janaway, C. (2006) Reading Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art: Selected texts with interactive commentary. Pondicherry: Blackwell Publishing.

Philosophy Bites (2017) ‘Elisabeth Schellekens Dammann on Disagreement About Taste’, Aesthetics Bites. [Podcast] Avaliable from: [Accessed 01.11.17].

Note/Thought - Meaning and Influence by Ally McGinn

Something i've only recently come to be able to articulate is the distance, although still connected, between the research i do (which informs and influences my work) and the meaning found in the work i create. The two are inextricably linked, but remain distinct from one another.

This is an important factor, as in previous years i have struggled to attempt to contain the research done in the context of the work, which can be detrimental to the creation of the work itself. To put it simply - there is a reason the two are different, and that reason separates the context of both, and it should be separate.

Research - Meaning by Ally McGinn

Meaning in art

Dewey posited that art is a way of understanding human culture, primarily the culture in which it was created. Heidegger agrees that the study of art, and the making of it, can be a form of understanding human history and progress.

The reason is a simple one, or at least it can be. To understand a piece of art we need to understand it's context, which includes information about the world at the time of making.

When combined with the artist's intentions, the reality of the work, it's place in the wider art world and it's place in the world ‘outside’ of art, it forms a language of art, in particular that piece.

The language of art is not a literal one. It is complicated and open to interpretation. Understanding the language of art aids in the interpretation of it.

Interpretation is a difficult word, one Derrida didn't use; because, Derrida believed, it presupposes a ‘pure’ or ‘real’ interpretation, where one doesn't exist.

Interpretation is dependent on perspective, and therefore is subjective. Meaning is subjective.

This can be seen in the study of semiotics, the meaning attributed to something often reaches a consensus at the basic level but each sign can contain potentially infinite signifiers, it simply depends on who is processing the sign - and more importantly who they are, how they think, what they know, and what they have experienced.

It is the combination of these factors that determines the interpretation of a sign. There are of course limits to each, but when considered as a whole the possibilities are numerous.

Semiology is the study of signs, and anything can be a sign, if seen in the ‘right’ ways.

Therefore meaning is, while limited in specifics, open in its possibilities.


If we take it to be true that art is a form of language, then it must be true that it communicates.

The language through which art communicates is specialised, there is an ‘Artworld’, as defined by Arthur Danto, in which this art language is the native tongue.

It is a skill. One that, like many others, can be improved upon over time. At first we may need explanations to help us open our eyes to the possible meanings of an artwork, but as we learn more about the artworks and when we actively ‘look’ for the signs (or possibly ‘words’ in this analogy) the language becomes easier to see.

Semiology is a useful lens through which we can explore the language of art.


The artist and the interpreter don't have to agree on the meaning, and often don't.

The important thing here to remember is that there is no pure meaning, we are fallible creatures and meaning is applied by humans to the reality we find, or the ideas we explore. Meaning is fallible.

In ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ by Wimsatt and Beardsley, the authors argue that the artist's meaning is irrelevant. Once the artwork is seen it the meaning given to it during it's creation no longer matters, it is what it is, and what it is will be interpreted by others.

I feel that there is a lot of evidence, at least anecdotal, that suggests that the artists cannot be seen as totally irrelevant after creation. For the very reasons seen above, to study art we need to know it's context, which includes the artists intentions. Whether or not the audience agrees is far more open. Artists also guide meaning, both during creation and after. (although in the case of after it can feel a defensive task - until a consensus is reached on the artist's status of course. Few would disagree with the artist's intentions when written on the wall of the RA for example)


When the artist and the interpreter do disagree, it is worth remembering that interpretation is a lens. It explores at least one facet of an artwork, and rarely sees them all.

A ‘good’ interpretation could be argued to be one that explores many facets, including some of itself.

Christine Freeland describes it in this way - “A good interpretation must be grounded in reasons and evidence, and should provide a rich, complex, and illuminating way to comprehend a work of art. Sometimes an interpretation can even transform an experience of art from repugnance to appreciation and understanding.”

And so we come to the importance of meaning, or the benefits of it.

Art is an immensely broad subject, given a three letter word to describe it. No two artworks are the same, and when they appear to be they are only highlighting that very issue. The interpretation of art aids in our understanding of what it does.

These ‘things’ (artworks) do something. They exist and they have a function. That function is physical and  cerebral, and meaning is central to the cerebral process.

Whether we ‘like’ and artwork or not, ignoring the meaning in favour of our initial personal opinion misses something important about the artwork and the role of art in human society; to make us think.

Note - here the word ‘think’ is defined to include the act of actively seeing, reacting or otherwise interacting with the artwork. After all there is always an element of thinking involved.


Writing this post has highlighted for me that we each have a methodology when we look at art. We can be said to be trying to understand that methodology, and potentially broaden it, when we open our minds to art and explore works for more than their initial ‘like’ or ‘dislike’.

As a practicing artist it is also interesting to note that meaning can become clear to an artist as well as the viewer. I've known many artists who have ‘suddenly realised’ their work is about an interest they had years previously or a personal issue they didn't realise they were working through in the studio.

Meaning isn't always intended, at least consciously.

Meaning is, to quote a phrase coined by popular culture but no less appropriate, bigger on the inside.

Next post - I'd like to explore more about why we create art, and the purposes of the activity itself.


Danto, A C. (1964) ‘The Artworld’. The Journal of Philosophy, Volume (61): Pages 571-584.

Derrida, J. (1978) The truth in painting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, J. (2005) Art as Experience. New York: Berkley publishing group.

Freeland, C. (2002) But is it Art?. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth (2017) [Exhibition]. Royal Academy, London. 23 September - 10 December 2017.

Marriner, R. (2002) ‘Derrida and the Parergon’. In: Smith, P and Wilde, C. eds. A companion to art theory. Blackwell: 349-359.

Marriner, R (2012) ‘Reframing the picture, recasting the object’. In: Heywood, I and Sandywell, B. eds. (2012) The handbook of visual culture. London: Berg.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010) ‘Heidegger’s Aesthetics’ [Online] Stanford University. Avaliable from: [Accessed - 13/10/17].

Wimsatt, W K and Beardsley M C. (1946) ‘The Intentional Fallacy’. The Sewanee Review, Volume, (54): Page 468-488. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 17.09.2016].

Research - Semiotics part 2 by Ally McGinn

When last posting i was exploring Barthes and Semiotics. This is a subject i'm continuing to find fascinating, and have made copious notes on.

For the sake of some self-imposed limitations i'm going to keep this as a short text with some of the most interesting things i have found.


Barthes makes an important distinction when considering the word ‘natural’ (which could be swapped for ‘normal’) that it is a reflection of those making the rules as opposed to a true reflection of a quantitative average.

To Barthes the fact that we do certain things (including, but not limited to: eating, sleeping, reproduction, language, etc) is natural, but the way we do them, and the ways we are taught (either consciously or subconsciously) to do them is a form of semiotics. In that, they have meaning to our society, and with the correct signs and information those meanings can be deciphered BUT those nuances differ from place to place.

Could it then be said that the natural parts of human nature are those that are universal?  Or is it closer to the truth to say that the natural parts are the activities, and the study of meaning is something slightly different?


Barthes and Saussure agree that the words we use (as in the sounds made when we say them or the shapes formed when we write them) are relatively arbitrary. Their only meaning comes from a collaborative agreement, made long before most of us were born.

Changing the word or sound doesn't change the meaning, or the thing itself.

Interestingly a case in response to this would seem to be art itself. The artist can claim an object as ‘Art’ and change what it is, or at least our understanding of it. The object doesn't change through the nomination, our perception of it does. (But that shift in perception is reliant on an element of trust from the viewer for the artist, and a belief in historical canon and the value of Art. - as it always is, it is not as simple as changing the name, the perspective shift requires a far more complex negotiation than that)

If the words we use are largely arbitrary then they become once more a tool in our understanding and experience of our world. We use the structure of language to apply structure to a world that we are only beginning to understand.

These structures can be seen in every element of our lives as humans. Even time.

The addition of leap seconds are an interesting example. Days are getting minutely longer all the time, but the increase is subject to various physical factors and is hard to predict, so a consensus is reached by academic leaders in the field and we occasionally have an extra second added to our calendars - often causing chaos in our computer systems.

The structure we have applied to time on Earth is utterly ignored by the physical reality of the planet.


There can be no definitive meaning attached to an object or sign, because those meanings are changeable.


Barthes wrote and theorised about far more than the subject of semiotics. In ‘The Death of the Author’ a text exploring ideas around originality (among a few others) Barthes posits that originality is a clouded subject because of the interrelation between the internal and the external (to use Derrida’s dual explanation - which certainly fits here) meaning, that it is difficult to create something when there is so much already out there. We are not isolated beings living with no contextual, cultural, social or other intellectual input. We are sponges, from the moment we begin to process information, we store that information.

The other important point in this text is that meaning doesn't so much originate in the author but in the audience. Again, similar in ways to Derrida's theories.

Barthes stresses that meaning is generated in a form that he talks about as intertextuality.  When you read or watch something the meaning taken from it are to do with things we perceives to exist between the thing you are experiencing and other things you have experienced in the past.


This is a shorter post than i am used to writing, but i believe it shows a few examples of the areas of interest that i’ve found while reading Barthes writings, and writings about him.The subject of semiotics is far deeper than i have even began to cover here, and a primarily linguistic exploration, however the importance of semiotics in visual culture (of which art is firmly entrenched) cannot be denied.
Semiotics might have been conceived in a literary form but it has impact in any and all areas we want it to, it is after all the study of meaning and humans are very good at applying meaning to anything.

Semiotics could be expanded to be - the study of anything that has a ‘subject’, because once we have labelled that ‘subject’ it has a form of a sign. The label itself is a sign.

Coming soon - Writing these short summaries is encouraging more research on the idea of art as an organising structure and its function in the role of human existence. Research, at least in the very near future, will move towards this arena.


Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text. St Ives: Fontana Press.

Barthes, R. ‘Death of the Author’, in Leitch, V.B. et al. (ed.) The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism: (2010) USA: Norton, pp. 1322-1326.

Barthes, Roland (1957) Mythologies.

Barthes, Roland ([1964] 1967). Elements of Semiology (trans. Annette Lavers & Colin Smith). London: Jonathan Cape.

Culler, J (2001) Barthes: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Derrida, J. (1978) The truth in painting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Research - Derrida and the frame. by Ally McGinn

Ally McGinn (2016-17)  Painting Installation.  Mixed media. Size varies.

Ally McGinn (2016-17) Painting Installation. Mixed media. Size varies.

This blog has been primarily involved with the theory of research and defining my place in the wider context.

Now we get some actual content.

Choosing an order automatically adds a hierarchy, so I will disclose now - this subject was chosen to discuss first because we were given a lecture today by the amazing Robin Marriner, who features heavily in the bibliography for this post, about visual culture and the way we read images.
Robin's work in the realm of visual culture has been extremely influential to me over the last three years, and it was through him that I discovered the theories of Derrida, and their relation to the way we see artwork.

With no further ado, a brief overview of Derrida’s ‘parergon’ and it's implications for the reading and understanding of art, and how that information might be explored in the studio.


Jacques Derrida was a philosopher commonly known for coining and developing our current understanding of the word ‘deconstruction’. An extremely prolific theorist Derrida wrote about many topics; however, the focus here is on a term coined by Derrida to explore the frame in art.

Drawing from Immanuel Kant’s theories Derrida wrote ‘The Truth in Painting’, in which he coined the term ‘parergon’, to explain why when looking at the work the frame is part of the wall, and yet when looking at the wall it is part of the work. Refused by each to be considered as part of themselves the frame exists between the two, as a separate entity.

Derrida said about the parergon, “Neither work (ergon) nor outside the work (hors d’oeuvre), neither inside nor outside, neither above nor below, it disconcerts any opposition but does not remain indeterminate and it gives rise to the work.”

The function of the parergon, then, is to create a framework that contextualises (and re-contextualises) what is being framed.

The parergon is both a literal framing or placement and a metaphysical concept that denotes context, both of which can be understood and used by the artist and the viewer.

Our metaphysical understanding of the frame can be taken as our understanding (or exploration) of meaning. We all interpret visual culture (any aspect of our culture perceived visually), based on our own knowledge or understanding. In Derridian theory, the meaning of the work is not intrinsic to the work, at least not completely.  

There are certain signs that exist in any work of art. However those signs are subjective, they can be interpreted.

Interpretation is a word that Derrida never used because it implies that there is a pure, or real, meaning to be found in each artwork.  There is no right answer in art, and there can be no single ‘real’ meaning, only varying readings, what we see and say to be there doesn’t exist without what we bring to it – a framework. That framework comes from things that are both external and internal to the work, and more importantly, the links between the two.

External to the work, in terms of the wider context, we find any other information that is not contained within the edges of the artwork. Because the existence of the artwork is so dependent on this information it follows that what we believe or define as external is, in fact, an integral part of the artwork.  Following this, we can see that no art can ever be autonomous.  The internal involves the invocation of the external and the external involves the reading of the internal.  Both exist, and it is only without either that true autonomous art could exist.

The moment you take something as ‘Art’ it is contained within the metaphysical frame of art context, connecting it to things outside of itself. The interior meaning (placed by the artist, object or material) and the exterior meaning (eg; wider context, the nature of art and the viewers perspective) are vital to the reading of artworks as ‘Art’. To see ‘Art’ we need the theory and the knowledge. It is only in the acknowledgement of the exterior that an artwork can be seen as more than a physical object, but as ‘Art’.


From this overview of the ‘parergon’ we can see some of the initial implications of this theory, and how it might impact the studio work.

Firstly, the exteriority of meaning is part of the foundation for the nomination of found objects as art. It is only through the frame of ‘Art’ can anything be ‘Art’.

Physically the frame is something involved heavily in painting, especially if the stretcher is considered a sort of proto-frame. In sculpture, the plinth can be seen as the primary frame, although only for certain sized works. With digital artworks, the edge of the screen visibly replicates the frame of the painting……..In all forms of art a frame is seen, even if (for example, with installation art) the frame is the gallery itself.

Conceptually this theory shows the importance of the viewer and their subjective view of the work. Once the artwork has been nominated and experienced the artist's intentions become balanced with the viewer's subjective understanding of it (where the argument of the most important is hotly contested - further reading - ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ Wimsatt and Beardsley)

Simply put - All artworks are surrounded by frames, both physical and conceptual, and those frames direct the meaning and understanding of the work.

Next post - more research! 



De Duve, T. (1998) Kant after Duchamp. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Derrida, J. (1978) The truth in painting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Heywood, I and Sandywell, B. eds. (2012) The handbook of visual culture. London: Berg.

Kant, I. (2007) Critique of Judgement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marriner, R. (2002) ‘Derrida and the Parergon’. In: Smith, P and Wilde, C. eds. A companion to art theory. Blackwell: 349-359.

Marriner, R. (2015) Making and the Contemporary. Bath Spa University. October-December 2015.

Marriner, R (2017) Meanings in Visual Culture. Research Methodologies module. Bath Spa University. 17th October 2017.

Wimsatt, W K and Beardsley M C. (1946) ‘The Intentional Fallacy’. The Sewanee Review, Volume, (54): Page 468-488. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 17.09.2016].