What about "Untitled"?

A colleague and I have a longstanding and friendly (I hope) disagreement going. Basically, I believe in titles, and she, for the most part, does not. We had another round of it as we looked at the Way Bay exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum in March, so it's on my mind again.

I wrote a post, "The Untitled Library: How Titles Work," in 2013 here, in which I examine how a title is important in order to give the viewer a starting point. Today I will take up her opinion and examine it from her side. Seems fair. She's a painter, so I will be using painting as the example.

The Arguments for Limited Titles or "Untitled"
A title narrows the viewing experience. When you give a piece a title, the viewer then says, "Oh, it's about that." But sometimes the artist wants it to be about that and more than that, so a title would be limiting the experience. Without a title, the viewer has the freedom to see the painting how she likes. In this case, the artist is trusting the viewer to engage with the painting on her own terms. Like receiving a gift. The artist is also trusting that the viewer will spend the time needed to feel and reach into what she is seeing. I like the idea of trusting the viewer.

A title is forced. For people who are primarily visual, words aren't necessarily part of the game, and trying to come up with a title may be difficult, painful, and may not feel right. The artist may not feel that the title is honestly connected to the work. She may feel it does not add to the experience. And she may not want it to add to or distract from the immediate viewing and reaction to the painting itself. I recognize that I am a word person, that words come easily to me and are an important part of my work. But I acknowledge that not everyone works like this.

A title is good as an identifying mark. Sometimes the artist titles her works with numbers or initials as a way to list the paintings and note which one is in what show and what has sold. Clarity in cataloguing for the artist and for the gallery owner as well.

I think these are valid arguments, and they encourage other questions. Are we making art or are we in the mirror business? (This is the subject of one of my 2012 posts, "The Mirror Business.") How much time will a viewer spend with a work of art? And how much work is reasonable for the viewer to have to do? Titles can be as simple or complicated as we like.

So you see, my colleague and I both have strong opinions about titles. But it's good to step into someone else's argument sometimes, try to understand why they think the way they do.

The blank books and journals I make are probably the only things I do not title.

There's an amusing film that spoofs art and music called, "Untitled."


kathy loomis said…
I'm on your side -- the title is one more piece of content that the artist adds to the work.

I am always amused at works called "Untitled (Green Lake Depths)" or whatever. Seems they want to be oh-so-cool and not give a title..... but they also want to give it a title.

make up your mind!!
Alisa said…
Hi Kathy,
I think that's the in-between space where the artist doesn't want to give it a title for the public (outward facing), but does want to give it a description in order to keep track of it (inward facing). I agree it can be frustrating.
Redanne said…
I am new to your blog and enjoyed reading both articles. Perhaps I am taking too simplistic a view ... if I pick up a book, I look at the title first, I don't really want to read the first 10 pages to find out what it is all about. I struggle to see how there is any pleasure in doing just that. In terms of a piece of art, I prefer it to be untitled, as I think we all see different things in art and some of us want to interpret the piece in our own way. But, I guess others may want to see what the artist intended. I think what I am trying to say, very badly, is that you and your colleague both have valid arguments! It certainly is a fascinating discussion Alisa!
Alisa said…
Welcome, Redanne! Thanks for your response. You've hit on it exactly. Sometimes even when we have strong opinions one way it's good to try to understand the other side. It doesn't mean we have to agree with it.