I shared the stegosaurus-in-a-bathtub image with a friend and former student who’s an administrator in a college residence hall program. I didn’t expect him to analyze it, just possibly enjoy it. He responded like this:
Interesting. I can’t say that I understand it (I’ve never been good at finding meaning in abstract art, much to my wife’s chagrin)….
I wrote back,
Consider this quote from the Handbook for Humanities Students I wrote:
Which ideas are involved?
Traditionally, the ideas [Humanities is concerned with] have been those considered religious, philosophical, and in some cases political. In other words, they have been the ideas concerned with concepts like meaning, being, values, and beauty. The humanities deal with such issues as men and women’s place in the universe; their relationship to divinity and the supernatural; their search for just principles of governance; their choices involving right and wrong; their questions about the nature of individual identity; and their response to the beautiful or the sublime.
It is important to realize that these ideas need not be rational or even capable of being expressed in words. the psychologist Rudolph Arnheim has shown us the importance of visual, nonverbal thinking (Visual Thinking ). And learning theorist Howard Gardner has demonstrated that there are many types of creativity and intelligence and consequently of ideas, in the broadest sense, beyond the conventional dichotomy of the verbal and the quantitative (Creating Minds). Ideas can of course be written or spoken. But they can also be seen or felt, as Daniel Goleman shows in a book entitled Emotional Intelligence. In the arts, these nonverbal and emotional ideas are often the most important of all.
Sometimes meaning is a feeling that can’t be articulated in words. Sometimes it’s an impulse to laugh or cry. Sometimes it’s irritation or confusion. Sometimes the meaning one experiences can be articulated only through music or dance. (I’m reminded of a phrase Laurie Anderson mentioned one time: “dancing about architecture.”)
I included a New Yorker cartoon by Stan Hunt. A husband and wife are standing before an abstract painting in a museum or gallery. He’s looking grumpy. She says, “Well, for that matter, what is the meaning of you?”
Later I thought of A Certain Slant of Light, one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems:
There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.
Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.
None may teach it anything,
‘ T is the seal, despair, –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.
When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ‘t is like the distance
On the look of death.