Reprinted with permission by Keith Morant
I know that this has been a very controversial topic on many levels over the centuries. The subject has been debated through historical and philosophical studies that began as far back as the 17th century. Think of the great works and frescoes on the ceilings and altars of European palaces, where a title was never necessary as the subject matter itself was enough. It was not until collectors needed art to become more transportable that titles, as such, came into their own. As E. H. Gombrich observed, “Titling is a by-product of the mobility of images”. The art that was created separately from its place of display could be moved anywhere and it was this that eventually gave importance to the titling of artwork as well as the identity of the artist.
I certainly see the necessity of titles, especially on paintings of portraiture and topographical subjects. Representational work of any kind demands some form of reference as to who or what is depicted. But where the more abstract or non-representational is concerned, a more nebulous or fanciful title is often used.
Today there are as many reasons against titling a painting as there are for it. One of the main reasons for not giving an artwork a title is that, if the art is an abstract expression from the deeper nature of the artist and aspires to connect with the human spirit, a title is merely an intellectual prop that tends to contradict
his or her efforts.
I have been an artist all my life and for me art has always been a natural expression of my existence. I have been painting continuously for over fifty years and through that time faced many different stages of development. After many thousands of ‘titled’ paintings I have come to a surprisingly unexpected question; does the finished work really need a title?
I have always been particularly careful with my titled paintings in that the name given was generic and more relative to a universal concept than indicative of any particular representation. I am acutely aware of the banality of illustration and have always tried to allow a wider area for the viewer’s interpretation. Often such titles came with the painting and would be a conjoining of terms which gave a completely unprecedented word to language. An example of this would be a large work recently shown at my latest exhibition; it is titled ‘Neurorhythm’. Other examples of this type of naming would be ‘Autumnuance’, ‘Chopinia’ or ‘Neuressence’. Many such titled works carry some sense of their inspired origination, especially those relative to music or travel.
However, recently I began to question very seriously this traditional propensity of giving the abstract visual experience a name. This questioning has grown from my own observation of people’s reaction to my work, especially children, to whom a title is meaningless and their imaginative appreciation goes much deeper and further than I could ever anticipate.
For over a year now I have allowed paintings to leave my studio ‘Untitled’ with only a number as reference for my database. There are now over one thousand such works in various mediums on canvas or paper.
I have always professed that the artist does not ‘finish’ a painting. The work is always completed by the mind observing it. A painting hanging on a gallery wall is to be viewed and every person who approaches it brings their own memory-bank, educated mindset and conditioned awareness to translate and ‘complete’ the work through their experience.
A work of art, through its viewers, can be born many times over and it is hoped that it may live long through a continued series of such births. Equally a work may suffer and die through confusion and lack of interest. It has occurred to me that such confusion may be caused by the incompatibility of a viewers expectations and the proclaimed (therefore limiting) title of the painting.
So – with this in mind, I ask myself, is a title not a literary aid to influence the viewer’s thinking? Is it not a form of propaganda put there to elicit a certain response? Does it not, through subtle psychological effect, place a boundary on the viewer’s approbation? While I can reach no final conclusion on this question I hope that some consideration of the points made will bear fruit.
Of course, I will still be giving titles to paintings but it will be more likely when, as a work evolves, it names itself and the art transcends the artist.
(Cover image: Untitled Number 1012 by Keith Morant)