Research point: Context and meaning

Notes on John A. Walker, "Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning"

  • Walker distinguishes between 'immanent structure' (immediate, local context) and the broader context outside the frame of an artwork. The frame itself is a form of self-containment or bracketing of meaning and can lead us to ignore the wider context within which a work appears and is understood.
  • A given work can have multiple contexts. These have different impacts on the connotations of a work but are less likely to affect denotation.
  • When context changes there is potential for a 'third-effect' meaning created by relationships with items in the surrounding context.
  • Change of context became particularly important as artworks were less often attached to a specific place. (John Berger makes the same point in "Ways of Seeing," noting that it used to be common for works to be created for, and installed in, specific settings. Often, these were places of worship.) Now, media context is more important than 'architectural setting.'
  • Walker uses the terms 'circulation' and 'currency' to describe the ebbs and flows in the life of a work as it changes contexts.
  • The different locations in which Jo Spence's project—Beyond the Family Album, Private Images, Public Conventionshas been seen demonstrate the impact that context has for setting an interpretive frame.
  • Walker states that if we are going to talk about the "efficacy" of the exhibit we would need to know about the viewers. But which viewers? Spence's 'ideal viewer' or someone else? I don't know how useful this would be as a line of inquiry. If we can't always be sure about the intent of the artist (as though there were just one and the artist herself could articulate it perfectly), and context has an important role in the creation of meaning, why do we think that knowing about the 'viewer' (as though there were just one) is helpful?
  • Just as context can shape interpretation of a work, so the work can shape interpretation of its context. This is a good point and Walker's example is worth copying here:

If display context can influence the meaning of a photograph, the photograph
can influence the meaning of the context. This reasoning lay behind John X.
Bcrger's comment at a Hayward Gallery evening discussion that the socialist and
feminist photography 'had radicalised the gallery space'. But the influence is twoway:
it could also be argued that the gallery—a High Art cultural institution
serving the interests of the bourgeoisie—had de-radicalised radical photography!

  • Walker then describes the 'mental context' of the viewer. Much of this seems like basic communications or rhetorical theory: how is the viewer/listener disposed to the work/message? He then spends a few paragraphs pointing out that we are not all just individuals but share common opinions, values and viewpoints. In other words, there must be sufficient commonality between communicator and audience to allow communication to happen. 
  • This seems like a fairly obvious point to me, but it may still need to be made explicit. People regularly claim that advertising has no effect, but it must: commercial enterprises and governments wouldn't pay what they do if advertising had no impact. Perhaps this is a more insidious side of imagery if we are not even aware of its effects.
  • Walker closes his article with a brief discussion of the frustration that some artists have of losing control of the meaning of their work, given that they cannot always choose the context within which it will be viewed. (Sounds to me to be a bit like having children. We bring them into the world and do our best to raise them well, but we don't own them and we cannot control them. You must accept it.)