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Labored Meanings: Contemporary Artists and the Process and Problems of Producing Artistic Meaning

Sun, August 13, 10:30am to 12:10pm, Palais des congrès de Montréal, Floor: Level 5, 517B


One of the defining features of contemporary art is its state of freedom from artistic convention. The absence of stylistic unity creates a climate of aesthetic uncertainty, in which artworks can no longer be visually distinguished from other objects on the basis of their material properties. Because art no longer resides in the materiality of objects, objects now require a meaning, or discourse, to achieve legitimation as artwork. How do artworks acquire meaning? Sociologists have generally pursued questions related to the meaning of art to studies of either mediators (such as curators and critics), or the interpretive practices of audiences. In this paper, I explore the origins of artistic meaning by turning the lens in a new direction, towards artists. Drawing on in-depth interviews with 28 contemporary artists, I examine how artists craft the meaning, or accompanying discourse, of their work. How do artists go about producing meaning in their work? What kinds of approaches do they take? What are the typical problems involved in this part of their work? And what role do other art world participants play? After answering these questions, the final section of the paper considers the theoretical challenges posed by these findings for studies of consumption and production of culture.