In this essay I will examine the possibility of understanding a work of art. In particular, I will be exploring an understanding of the work of art in lieu of its origins. I will use the conceptual premise of Barthes, that of a work of art as a text, and that the art as a text not only includes the piece itself, but the audience and their relationship to it and the context in which it appears. My thesis is that the understanding of a work of art as a text has its origins not in the art itself primarily, but in the questioning of the work art as it pertains to its meaning. I am writing this against arguments which tend to find the 'last word' on the meaning of a work of art in the artists intentions, the creative process, or the historical conditions at its point of origin.

Before we begin to explore the question of whether or not a work of art can be understood and how so, without a knowledge of the origins, we must ask what exactly are the origins, which we are inquiring about? It seems impossible to actually locate a specific origin of a work of art. If I ask about the intentions of the artist, than I am not asking far enough, for I am not asking "why those intentions and not another?", I could ask of the intentions to perhaps perform a Freudian psychoanalysis, but am I still asking about the work of art or the artist?.

To simply assume that the meaning of the work of art can be found in the artist's intentions ignores the fact that our intentions are often times unknown to us, or are often not what they appear to be. Furthermore, it does not take into account the contingency of the relationship of signs to one another. If x did not mean y then the picture may have been different, not to mention that x might mean something different now, so it could be said that its origin is in language. The origin for any given piece of art may also be given in the creative process or in the historical context. However, I can only paint a picture if techniques and procedures for painting had already been invented. The historical context of the work of art could be taken as the origin of the work of art, but would it not be more accurate to locate the origin not in the context but in the historical process at work from which that context emerges. The position that says that the meaning of a piece must be discovered in the history of the event of the origin also ignores the fact that a work of art is often produced over long periods of time, long enough that the 'historical context' and its significance can change during the production of the work of art. And if we are to locate the origin of the work of art in a historical context, shouldn't the history of the historical context be taken into account? And then where do you draw the line, how far back should we go? This is not to say that we shouldn't make decisions about where an origin begins without Absolute Knowledge or some omnipotence, only that these decisions about what constitutes a piece of art's origins are arbitrary and when pushed we see that there are no 'events' at all (that is atomized moments of origination, independent and self-sufficient). Thus the historical period of a piece of art's creation cannot stand as a guarantee for its meaning.

I see two major problems appearing for anyone who claims that knowledge of the origins of the work of art are necessary for having an understanding of the piece. The first is where to locate the origins, as said above, but I shall elaborate more here. It seems that any of the possible origins mentioned above might provide us with an understanding of the work of art and yet all locate the origins in different places. It is a question of the arbitrariness of constructing the causal chain in a work of art. Technically speaking, if we wanted to ask about the actual origins of a work of art we would have to say with Spinoza, that all art has its origin in God. This is because all causes have another cause to them. After all Beethoven's ninth Symphony wouldn't be what it was if the Christian empire hadn't expanded into Northern Europe. Is that the origin of this symphony? In short with Spinoza we have to say that everything has its origin in everything, in 'God'. To claim that an understanding of a work of art depends on the knowledge of its origins would render the work of art unintelligible.

The second major problem to be found in saying the claim that an understanding of a work of art depends on its origin, is that it discounts the viewer. Even if we can settle on intentions, or context, systems of discourse, than the question 'what does it mean to you?' never comes up. This is because the type of approach to a piece of art that is constituted by giving the 'last word' on its meaning in the work of art itself or in its history or in its creator's intentions separate the artistic object from the subject. These positions of origin presuppose the anonymity of the viewer and the innocence of the type of examination posed to the piece in question. It also condemns the art to being dead, it separates the object of art and the subject and refuses to the piece of art its possiblity of acquiring meanings. This further removes the subject from being able to be active and creative in their interpretation of the work of art. For example, if we say that we need to understand the artist and their historical context to understand a work of art than it seems hard to accept that a Jewish person would be able to appreciate the work of Wagner, given his tendencies to German Romanticism and National Socialism which played a big part in the ideology of Nazi Germany. The work may have been exclusive then, that is, not produced for the ears of Jews. By limiting the work to its historical context and the intentions of the artist it, we simply are reproducing the exclusivity of the work, we are condemning the music of Wagner to be forever bound to nazism. Thus the music of Wagner could be liberated from Wagner himself.

Having said all that however, its still seems apparent that the 'origins' of a work of art, in terms of what is conventionally meant by 'origins', still gives us an understanding of the art in question. PissChrist might seem like a peculiar title for a portrait of Christ until we learn of the creative process involved. In fact, we could probably assume that underneath the painting would be a 'blurb' about how it was produced by the artist, and the blurb seems to be pointing to the creative process as to locate a meaning in the work of art. That is, the creative process is included as a sign in the work of art that contains a significance and is meaningful through the 'blurb'. And certainly, the historical context within which the art first appeared still seems to be useful to a particular understanding of a work of art. So, then, how are we to understand a work of art, if we are to acknowledge the fact that understanding its origins can produce an understanding, and yet include the fact that the viewer is viewing the work of art from a particlar standpoint, and that what we include as origins is problematic in its arbitrariness? How do we understand a work of art in a way that includes the subject, keeps the art 'alive' and doesn't fall prey to a genetic fallacy? Any claim to a method of understanding of the text, that keeps relevant the origins of the work, must be able to address the two problems I posed above.

At last the real question is being opened up. This question is of the origin of the understanding of a work of art. The understanding can not be located in the work of art, and cannot simply be thrown haphazardly to the discretion of the subject, for in doing so would render the possible meanings of the work of art so infinite that it would be meaningless. The understanding of the work of art, what the art means, must be located in the particular questions posed to the work of art. It is not 'what does this piece mean?' but 'what type of meaning am I looking for?'. Every particular question towards a work of art opens up a field of possible meanings and understandings. In understanding the understanding of a work of art in this way we can see certain advantages. The problem I posed above to demanding a knowledge of the origins of work of art in order for that work to be understood, in lieu of Spinoza, is rendered inoccuous by emphasizing the question of how we are understanding the work of art, questioning it. For if we were to be serious about understanding a work of art by a knowledge of its origins we would need a God-like standpoint, we would have to be omnipotent. Only until the impetus for understanding of a piece of art is placed in the question of 'in which way are we to understand it?', the particular understanding of it that we are looking for, can the origins actually be made relevant. What I mean to say is that we need to focus on the fact that if we are to ask of the meaning of a piece of art given the historical context in which it came into actuality, that we are asking for an understanding of the piece given a particular part of its origins, we are inquiring into a specific field of meanings and understanding. The origins become relevant because we bring a certain part of its origin into question, through the particular question that we ask of it. In order to not say that only God can understand a work of art, we have to admit ourselves into the understanding of it and give meaning to one of many possible places that we could locate the origin of any piece of art. Through our questioning we choose and forget, for that is the only way we can come to understand and interpret the work of art.

However, that the questioning of a work of art disposes a certain horizon of understanding should not be taken to mean that the subject freely determines with the question how a particular piece of art is to be understood. A work of art may include things in its presentation which solicit and invite certain fields of questions. To include in the 'blurb', the creative process behind PissChrist, its creative process, in conjunction with its title, gives the art the ability to demand of us to include the creative process as part of the meaning of the work itself. Whenever a work of art includes its 'origins' in some way in the work itself, it is drawing our 'eyes' towards a certain focus, it is asking us to ask of it in a certain way. The art can frame itself or be framed in a certain way that we can be asked to question it in a certain way. The artist's intentions may still be relevant to understanding the work of art, depending on whether or not the artist's intentions are included in the work of art as a signifier that demands the question of its meaning be posed to it with relevance to the artists intentions.

Now to say that a work of art is 'timeless', is obviously hyperbolic and exaggerated, but certainly some works of art have lasted across time. The Homeric texts, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Renaissance paintings, ect. Now if we say that they are simply beautiful, and that is why they have persevered, we are reducing them to meaningless but pretty objects. They become idle niceties and luxuries. This happens because, again there is a position taken towards the art that renders the piece's qualities entirely in the piece. Furthermore something can be beautiful without being 'meaningful' (in the strong sense of the word). Certainly we demand more from art, and especially art purported to be great. And yet if Barthes and others are right, that meanings depend on historical contexts and particular readings, that meanings are not stable, than how can, say, the Homeric texts, still be meaningful even today? Their being meaningful is not a characteristic that they possess in themselves, or a fact given in advance, their being meaningful must be maintained. The only way that we as readers, as viewers of art can maintain their meaningfulness is through the paying attention to the posing of questions as the source of their understanding and meaning. We maintain a piece of work's meaningfulness by looking for the ways in which it speaks to us, with our questions in mind, qualified only by the questions being ours, and by letting the piece speak through those questions. If we condemn meaningfulness of the art to be totalized in the artists intentions, or in its 'origins' than the piece of art becomes the idle nicety, it becomes a hobby or a collector's item, it becomes objectified. For we could not partake in its meaning, it could mean nothing for us and for a piece to be declared meaningful means exactly that, to be meaningful to us. If Nietzsche is right to say that the artist affirms, gives value to the subject of a work of art in choosing the subject, then the viewer or reader of a work of art gives value to art by giving it by inquiring of its meaning, in paying attention to the question with which we are to gather and pursue an understanding of the work of art. I say this because by saying 'what does this art mean?' I am positing on the work of art the characteristic of having meaning and value. In doing so, I also posit on the work of art the possibility of its challenging and seducing me to interpretation, I am opening myself up to the art as being possible to affect me, to teach me, to open myself up to myself. A piece of art which lasts across various times and historical processes and is still declared meaningful, can only be so if it is becoming meaningful. It must be a piece which has continually been able to put the viewer in the position of asking new questions, questions relevant to the viewer, and opening up new fields of meaning and understanding.

Thus the knowledge of the origins of a work of art do not in themselves confer an understanding of the meaning of the work art in question, until they are included as part of the question itself. I may wish to understand the meaning of the Homeric texts in the context of ancient Greece, that question will give me a certain understanding of them. But it is not the only understanding nor the only way of understanding them. And in understanding them this way, they are only meaningful if I pay attention to the fact that I am asking this question with a particular purpose for asking. That is if I my questioning forms around the historical context produces an understanding of the text, an understanding of it that is one of many possible ways of understanding it depending on the question, and its meaningfulness depends on why I'm asking the question. That every question opens up a field of possible meanings and understandings, and that in approaching a work of ask something to be something of which ask of its meaning, that is, we approach art with questions, it must be stated that no question is neutral nor central. There is no single question that will give me a work of art's Meaning, nor are there any questions which are more valuable than the others (from an objective stand point) nor give me an absolute understanding of it, every answer I receive from the piece of art is only an answer pertaining to my question. Every question finds its worth in my asking of it, every piece of art finds its meaning in my asking it a question. An understanding that pertains to the question of a work of art in relevance to its historical context is an understanding that is different from one, and not necessarily of better value than a question asked of the same piece's meaning that doesn't suppose any understanding of its historical context. That is not to say that 'anything goes', there can still be arguments over what the art means given a question. In the case of a question of a piece of art's meaning in its relevance to its 'original' historical context we can still argue different interpretations, given different historical facts, tracing genealogies and the like. We must not however assume, that this particular question is of greater value than another. If we do then in effect we are closing off the possibilities of understanding a text and throwing to the caprice of historical context, that is, if we say give it one meaning and one only, when that meaning no longer becomes meaningful than the piece is dead. It is by attempting to re-interpret, to give meaning, new life, to a piece of work that we maintain its meaningfulness over and above its mere collectibility.