What does the title of a work of art tell you? Does it actually tell you anything that matters? Should it? Can it? After all, a painting is not a poem or an essay and if it could be so reduced why wouldn’t the artist have used words and intellection rather than making an image in the first place? (Similarly, why would Beethoven compose a symphony or a sonata if words would do just as well?)
Well … one might argue … “the first place” belongs to the image, not the word. There were seers long before there were sayers. Words are always one step removed from experience and they remain an abstraction regardless of how ubiquitous and familiar they are or how dependent we are upon them. Perhaps that is why Seng-t’san, the third patriarch of Zen, said, The more you talk and think about it, the further astray you wander from the truth. Stop talking and thinking, and there is nothing you will not be able to know.
A “title” can be the bane of an artist’s existence and you have to wonder, who is the title for anyway? Is it essential to a painting or would the painting work just as well (or better) without it? Carolyn Bloomer (Principles of Visual Perception, 14) writes: Words direct people’s perceptions of art. Western artists and theorists often assert that an artwork should not need verbal expression — that it should stand on its own. For this reason, some modern artists simply number their works or leave them ‘untitled’. I have a great deal of sympathy with that … especially when titles are trite, dumb, or just plain irrelevant. And too often titles pander to viewers who, like a two year old, are interested in little other than their ability to name what they see. Never the less…
Titles for the most part are one of three things: a label, a veil, or a portal.
A label is perfunctory or meaningless. At best it merely describes what you can see for yourself (e.g. “Still Life with Cat”) and is therefore redundant, a simple act of identification; at worst it is arcane nonsense whose meaning resides entirely with the artist and amounts to a visual non sequitur for the viewer.
A veil masks the meaning in the work. A title may do this accidentally as a result of the muddled intentions of the artist. Or, by contrast, it may be deliberate. Either way a veil obscures or hides meaning behind the words of the title. Properly executed it conceals with purpose, to quicken the imagination of the viewer, to question or disarm the assumptions he brings to the work. A skillfully veiled title works somewhat like a lie that you recognize as a lie: it redirects your attention on purpose.
A portal is a threshold like a window or a bridge … a threshold that helps you move from one place (the verbal or intellectual) into another (the visual or experiential). The words of a title offer a way to enter into the meaning of a work. The words do not make the artwork meaningful any more than a window makes the scenery it reveals. The title is simply a place outside the work itself that invites you inside for a deeper look. That portal may not be the only point of entry, but when artists know what they are doing it may be the most significant one.
An artist/historian friend sums it up best: Words are useful regarding art only when they point back to the work — only when they succeed in causing us to see with new eyes — only when they ask us to look again and more deeply. Words are only pointers; they should point to the thing, not to themselves; and they should then fade away — dissolve. If the word does not function in this manner, in relation to the work of art, then silence will be better.