Only Connect: The Naming of Things: Part Two

art and artists, Flora on Sand, Paul Klee 1927Art and Artists

The first post of this two-parter looked at the naming of things in music, fiction and poetry. This one tackles the painted arts, and the philosophy of naming.

Representational art is very popular. It appeals to our sense of the familiar and even when it tackles the big life issues, it offers one redeeming quality: a sense of beauty, either in the subject or the style. And the names, the titles of the pieces leave nothing to the imagination. It’s hard not to enjoy enjoy the line, colour and passion of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Millais’s Ophelia  and Monet’s Impression at Sunrise, and William Morris’ flowing textile designs are seductive and fascinating, but my heart belongs with the modernists of the 20th century, and its many sub-categories, Fauvists, Surrealists, Cubists, Futurists and, above all, Abstract Expressionists. I’m particularly drawn to the raw, internal eye of expressionism, with its exploration of the human condition, through its engagement with the viewer. For me, it teases more from its audience than the classical effulgence of (an admittedly sumptuous) painting by Alma Tadema.

Art and Artists, The Persistence of Memory, 1931, Salvadore DaliArt can be ugly, and exciting (Dali, left), dirty and joyful (Jackson Pollock), dark and elated (Marc Rothko), vibrant and other-wordly (Gerhard Richter). These are artists whose work work draws us in, and demands a response. They require an intimate engagement and reward submersion: the viewer must participate, not passively, but be enveloped, actively interpret, and become part of the process of creating something beyond the two dimensions of the painted form. We are creatures not just of sight, but of the five senses, and emotion: a great piece of art can consume the whole of us. This is not a manifesto for a certain type of art, but a recognition of our response to art; we always interact with a painting, or sculpture, whether we like it or not, indeed painting in a dark cupboard is barely art because it needs to am audience to become fully realised.

Art and Artists, Cupid and Psyche, William BouguereauThe Untitled Title

Descriptive names moved from the heroic and Biblical painting of a long classical period (Da Vinci’s Last Supper, Bouguereau‘s  Cupid and Psyche), through the Impressionists’ charming idylls (see Renoir’s Dance in the Country) and the late Victorian Pre-Raph’s search for the organic and the natural (Arthur HughesEve of St Agnes). Modernism, a phenomenon of the industrial, social and political change around the turn of the 19th Century wrestled with the naming issue because it broke from the past, to fleeing from the face of photography and retreating into the subjective realms of the inner voice. This complicated the naming process because it’s simpler to encapsulate a scene in a name, but more of a challenge to offer the viewer a part in the art.

Art and Artists, Untitled, 1910, Kandinsky. First AbstractThe answer for many of modernists was to use “Untitled” as a name: Kandinsky 1910 painting (left) was  probably the first abstract painting, but others, Rothko, Rauschenberg, Kline to name a few, have subjected their audiences to a title without a name. For some, this seems to go too far, offering nothing to the viewer: the title is so bare it’s almost negative, a vacuum. Others even argue that it’s too easy or lazy to use “Untitled”, but that at least, misses the point, because the artists have a made a clear choice to deny the viewer a way in, to force them to address the painting alone. Neo Rauch (a sort of neo-realist) however calls the use of “Untitled” disrespectful to the viewer, gallery owner even, laying bare the commercial side of the art, and the need to appeal to an audience.

art and artists, Giacometti, Falling ManRauch arrives with respectable friends: Giacometti’s Man Falling, Dali’s Leda Atomica, Picasso’s Girl Before A Mirror. These were rare beasts, these artists so successful in their lifetime. Perhaps the key though, apart from the obvious skill and energy, was their acute sense of the commercial, including the power of a narrative title. Both Picasso and Dali were masters of a name that told a story whether challenging, ironic or subtly undermining. People (i.e. audiences) like a story, they’re engaged by its direction, imagine its world, its endings.

Of course this begins to stray into dangerous territory: is this ‘art’, this descriptive naming, like an illustration, a caption? Is it entertainment, or expression, engagement even? If it’s entertainment the art needs a name with a story, to be commercial, or at least, to play at being popular. But is that ‘art’? Well I don’t think it’s not-art, without meaning to be anti not-art, or “anti anti-art”, as the Stuckists might say.

Art and Artists, Why Not Sneeze Rose Selavy, 1964, Marcel DuchampWhich leads us to Marcel Duchamp. For many he pushed  modernism to its logical extreme, for others he brought the travesty of Damien Hurst and modern, elitist non-art art forms. Duchamp created a new perception of art that replaced value in the skill of the artist with a sensibility that could be expressed through objects and concepts, that rejected the limits of the static two dimensional art and expressed the intention of the mind rather than the facility of the hand and eye. His titles played with the expectations of the viewer, Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy? (above), Fresh Widow, Fountain, challenged and fought for our attention; as such, they’re typically modernist, but Duchamp’s ready-mades and objects speak a different language of art, make us think about our responses. His challenge of the established elite of his time was to be admired, but his legacy has become more questionable and created its own form a form of exclusivity.

The Philosophy of Names

The relative power of a name depends on the purpose of the art, the music, the fiction or the poetry. The naming of us humans and animals teaches the importance of labels that last a lifetime so understanding the processes of naming is useful and offers an insight into the effect that names have on us.

Art and Artists, The Persistence of Memory, 1931, DaliFor some, names have utter and specific significance: naming your child Mohammed signals the clear beliefs of the parents; in a Christian tradition the use of strong biblical names such as John, Peter, Paul are more oblique because they have become detached from their exclusive religious context in a Western society that has eroded its religous core. However, such names still bring references and inferences: a child called Peter is more likely to come from one tradition than another, and that offers clues to their upbringing, and therefore their attitudes and perhaps their character. Of course giving a work of art a descriptive label (such as Dali’s Persistence of Memory, above) brings a wave of resonance to the viewer and informs their engagement. For every form of communicable artistic endeavour its name needs to be understood if it is to achieve any form of success.

Internal Names

If we don’t want the resonances, but a label that intrigues and prompts discovery, perhaps we can use made-up, or ancient names that nobody knows (H.P. Lovecraft‘s Cthulhu mythos is an obvious example), which can achieve an association only to the fiction, music or painting, with no other references. Wittgenstein’s thoughts on the internal nature of pain (in Philosophical Investigations) are helpful here because he points out that pain can only be felt internally by the person with the pain, but that we can learn to read the external signs and identify it, name it. A child is the same, understanding the moods and subtle signs of its family’s emotional temperature that might be missed by an outsider. The artist too can make this choice, should the name become part of the intrigue of the work, understood only by the artist? or is it a cosmic can-opener, a gateway into the painting.

It is hard to avoid inference of any sort if familiar language is used; even the bark of a dog is more than just a noise, it has some level of meaning and anyone who knows their own animal will be able to differenitate between a bark that warns, expresses excitement, or one of fear.

Repeated or understood, names bring meaning, even if it take some thought or use to tease it out. Ultimately a name can prompt satisfaction, through recognition, but for a painting this is dangerous because, for my purpose at least, it directs the viewer too obviously.


Art and Artists, Cage 1,2,3,4,5 by Gerhard Richter,So, it is difficult to separate the naming of a piece of work from its potential public. The association of a name with a work of art invests a value in the name and the content or object, and that creates social capital, if not always artistic integrity. Words are like equations, with worlds of meaning either implied or explicit; unlike equations they have an emotional reference, even if they’re objective, and they must either satisfy or intrigue.

Any form of art (fiction, sculpture, song) is only a failure if it does not prompt a response and the name of a work of art attempts to direct that response. Writing, painting, music, fiction, all forms of creativity need an audience; we can’t create in a vacuum, we crave appreciation, but we also worry about “selling out.” At the heart of this are the decisions that lead to the naming of things because although art, in all forms should challenge, entertain and engage, above all, it must be heard and the name of the work offers a starting point, and directs the initial response. Effective names must have some identifiable reference points to have any chance of finding an audience.

Good blogging advice tells me that you’ll be thoroughly bored by now, so although I’ve split the post, it’s still very long! I hope you’ve found it interesting: do you find it hard to name your work? I’d love to hear.

Actually, I have one more post on this topic, but it’s much shorter and relates only the names of my own work, so I’ve separated it out from this more general post.

Thank you for reading.

Links (external)

  • Some excellent Giacometti from Tate links here.
  • A good Marc Rothko link from The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC here.
  • Gerhard Richter home page is here.
  • Neo Rauch links here.
  • For more about the Stuckists (an anti conceptual, anti-ready made art movement), here.
  • For a brutal, interesting view about naming for commercial sale, check here.
  • From the MOMA in New York, an explanation of Marcel Duchamp‘s Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy here.

Links (These Fantastic Worlds)