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Roles and Relationships

In high school (mid- to late sixties) and college (early seventies) I didn’t think much about the relationship between a viewer and a painting on the museum’s white walls. Viewers were meant to stand back, I believed, and contemplate the piece, study its color and mood, its composition, its style, and read the wall text. As a student schooled in formalism, I knew the approach. It was “art for art’s sake” during those top-down days prescribed by the Modernist Era. I was a lowly viewer taking a passive role while the experts told me the facts about the painting and the artist.

The passive role belonged to readers, too, and audience members sitting in a theater or concert hall. Sit back, admire the skill of the performers, the expertise of the composer or choreographer or playwright. Appreciate the elements that make the play, the ballet, the poetry, the novel great.

But what about how the work makes us feel? What about the meaning we take from the piece?  We are thinking creatures, after all, capable of much more than standing back in a museum or occupying seats in a hall.

By the mid-80s and early -90s, postmodernism’s more grassroots, bottom up positions were shoving Modernism aside. In graduate school then, I took it in, thrilled to welcome a new approach that gave viewers, readers, and audience members an active role in creating the meaning of a piece, and bringing it to life. Art and books were living things, not static objects.


I was glad to be part of Arthur Danto’s “triadic dialogue.” A triangle, or better yet,

pyramid that locates the novel, painting, poem, play, music –the piece—at one of

the points, and the writer, artist, poet, composer at another. The third point of this

triadic relationship belongs to the reader, viewer, audience member who plays a

vital and active role with the piece and its creator. Together, meaning is constructed.

I drew that triangle on the chalkboard in my classroom every quarter, labeling the points

or vertex angles. Then I wrote the word “meaning” inside the geometric figure, used my

hands to show the flow among and between the points. Without you, I told the class,

raising my voice, there is no meaning. Then I would erase the legs of the triangle

connected to the viewer, reader, audience member, which also wiped out the word, the

idea of meaning. What remained was a straight line between the piece and its creator.

Without you, I emphasized, there is only a linear relationship. Without you there is only

an expensive, heavily-insured object hanging on the museum wall, a dusty volume in the

library, a Proscenium Arch separating the performers from the audience.

You are active participants, I would continue a little louder. You are essential. You have an active role to play. You bring the art to life. You give it meaning. It takes you to make this happen, I shout. Go to the museums, turn objects into art.


How about you? How do you see the triangle? What is your role in this “triadic dialogue”?

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