Art as communication

I often come across the idea of art as a form of communication. While I think it’s true that art communicates something or, perhaps, more accurately, multiple things, I have a problem with art being represented as simply being analogous to other forms of communication. I feel this representation undervalues art.

Communication consists of four primary elements: the sender, the message, the medium, and the receiver. I believe that all art consists of these elements, which is why I also think we can portray art – in an over-simplification – as being nothing more than a form of communication. I realize that people might do this without thinking too much about it, but when I encounter this it prompts me to respond in order to encourage a broader perspective.

The primary essence of communication is comprehension. Communication breaks down – i.e. does not happen – when it is not comprehended by the receiver. Lack of comprehension can occur for myriad reasons in any specific instance, but, generally, the culprit is a lack of clarity. Clarity may not exist because the message was rife with ambiguity, for example, or there was content that was simply not understood by the receiver, again for various possible reasons. However, in communicating we expect there to be a one-to-one relationship – a singularity – between what is intended to be communicated, and the message that is actually received.

Although the whole point of communication outside the realm of art – one-on-one or group conversation, oration from a speaker to an audience, email, journal articles, etc. – is to be understood, art does not rely on this value. Importantly, if it is not understood, it does not cease to be art. Furthermore, the sender (the artist) may not even want to be understood, at least not in all instances. That is, whether or not they sometimes want to be understood, artists realize and accept that being understood will likely not happen in all cases. Additionally, what is intended by the artist may indeed by a multiplicity of messages. The idea of art being open to interpretation may arguably be the defining aspect of what makes something art as opposed to something else. Yet, even if this is not the case (i.e. if art is more than simply something that can have multiple interpretations), it is typical of any art that multiple receivers of that art will each take away a different message, is often the result that is actually desired by the artist. It is obvious that this phenomenon of multiplicity in art is a stark contrast to – indeed, the very opposite of – the primary essence of communication, which is singularity.

The beauty and the importance of art depend on subjectivity. Subjectivity essentially subverts the ultimate goal of communication. Art may be a form of communication or include communication but it is so much more. I’m inclined to go as far as saying that art is something other than communication, even though it shares common aspects.

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