George MacDonald and the "meaning" of your art

If as an artist you have ever been asked the question, "What does your art mean?", my guess is that your response was one of two sorts. You were irritated and disheartened by the question. Or you did your level best, after counting silently to ten, to provide a "grammar" by which your artwork might be more deeply appreciated.

The functional problem with this question is that the term "mean" carries a double sense. The more common sense in which it is used, in these circumstances, is to request an explication or dictionary-like definition. Works of art, of course, cannot be translated wholesale from one language (that of the artistic medium itself) to another language (that of Merriam-Webster's) without a loss of power (without a loss, that is, of an inherent "good" with its own inertia in the world), and so our best bet is to nudge our questioner towards a better question:

How does the work of art mean?

And with this sort of question, we come to George Macdonald who, in 1893, offered a fine, albeit brief, essay on the way in which a fairy tale "means." His point ably serves the rest of us artists, too, so I'm copying an excerpt of it here. Consider this your go-to response when next you are asked to answer the meaning of your artwork. You can go here to read the whole essay or you could get yourself a copy of George MacDonald: The Complete Fairy Tales too; and I warmly recommend a recent publication on GMD by my good friend, Gisela Kreglinger, Storied Revelations: Parables, Imagination, and George MacDonalds Christian Fiction. I'm guessing that the sheer beauty of his beard had something to do with his genius, but that's only a guess. What I can be sure of is the clarity of thought, which makes MacDonald's writing both compelling and accessible to a broad audience.

"The Fantastic Imagination"

"You write as if a fairytale were a thing of importance: must it have a meaning?"

It cannot help having some meaning; if it have proportion and harmony it has vitality, and vitality is truth. The beauty may be plainer in it than the truth, but without the truth the beauty could not be, and the fairytale would give no delight. Everyone, however, who feels the story, will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will read one meaning in it, another will read another.

"If so, how am I to assure myself that I am not reading my own meaning into it, but yours out of it?"

Why should you be so assured? It may be better that you should read your meaning into it. That may be a higher operation of your intellect than the mere reading of mine out of it: your meaning may be superior to mine.

"Suppose my child ask me what the fairytale means, what am I to say?"

If you do not know what it means, what is easier than to say so? If you do see a meaning in it, there it is for you to give him. A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean. If my drawing, on the other hand, is so far from being a work of art that it needs THIS IS A HORSE written under it, what can it matter that neither you nor your child should know what it means? It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning. If it do not even wake an interest, throw it aside. A meaning may be there, but it is not for you. If, again, you do not know a horse when you see it, the name written under it will not serve you much. At all events, the business of the painter is not to teach zoology.

But indeed your children are not likely to trouble you about the meaning. They find what they are capable of finding, and more would be too much. For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five....

"But words are not music; words at least are meant and fitted to carry a precise meaning!"

It is very seldom indeed that they carry the exact meaning of any user of them! And if they can be so
used as to convey definite meaning, it does not follow that they ought never to carry anything else. Words are like things that may be variously employed to various ends. They can convey a scientific fact, or throw a shadow of her child's dream on the heart of a mother. They are things to put together like the pieces of a dissected map, or to arrange like the notes on a stave. Is the music in them to go for nothing? It can hardly help the definiteness of a meaning: is it therefore to be disregarded? They have length, and breadth, and outline: have they nothing to do with depth? Have they only to describe, never to impress? Has nothing any claim to their use but the definite? The cause of a child's tears may be altogether undefinable: has the mother therefore no antidote for his vague misery? That may be strong in colour which has no evident outline.

A fairytale, a sonata, a gathering storm, a limitless night, seizes you and sweeps you away: do you begin at once to wrestle with it and ask whence its power over you, whither it is carrying you? The law of each is in the mind of its composer; that law makes one man feel this way, another man feel that way. To one the sonata is a world of odour and beauty, to another of soothing only and sweetness. To one, the cloudy rendezvous is a wild dance, with a terror at its heart; to another, a majestic march of heavenly hosts, with Truth in their centre pointing their course, but as yet restraining her voice. The greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended.

I will go farther. The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself....

"But a man may then imagine in your work what he pleases, what you never meant!"

Not what he pleases, but what he can. If he be not a true man, he will draw evil out of the best; we need not mind how he treats any work of art! If he be a true man, he will imagine true things: what matter whether I meant them or not?...

"But surely you would explain your idea to one who asked you?"

I say again, if I cannot draw a horse, I will not write THIS IS A HORSE under what I foolishly meant for one. Any key to a work of imagination would be nearly, if not quite, as absurd. The tale is there, not to hide, but to show: if it show nothing at your window, do not open your door to it; leave it out in the cold. 


Mark Allen said…
It was good for me to be reminded of MacDonald's take on this, but I guess I still worry about the scarcity of his "true men" in our day.
"True men" are cultivated one person at a time, brother, and we bear witness as we are able to that goal, even as we fall short of it ourselves.

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