One of the classic Christmas songs I grew up with is “All I Want For Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth).” “....so I can wish you Merry Christmas.” In the 1948 song by Spike Jones & His City Slickers, the singer whimpers “no one can unders-s-s-stand me.” I can relate.
Maybe it was growing up with a lawyer for a father, feeling like I had to “define the terms” before digging into a conversation. Being naturally inclined to rebel….well you can imagine the hilarity that ensued, to the tune of “Who’s on the First?”
Part of being an artist means you’re probably going to be misunderstood by someone at some point. Usually it’s society: “Is that art?!” I’ve always felt limited expressing myself with 2-D words for my 3-D thoughts. So instead of struggling with language, I just created my own, using metaphors, images, and poetry to communicate in the panoramic.
But people only comprehend words or concepts that they recognize from elsewhere in their lives; connotations and intonations for which they have personally assigned meaning. In “Man and His Symbols”, Carl Jung explains:
“Man uses the spoken or written word to express the meaning of what he wants to convey. [But a] word or an image is symbolic when it implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. It has a wider ‘unconscious’ aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained.”
Enter connotation. In the Google Dictionary definition of connotation, under the “philosophy” heading, it reads: “the abstract meaning or intention of a term, which forms a principle determining which objects or concepts it applies to.”
Jung gives an example: “When, with all our intellectual limitations, we call something ‘divine,’ we have merely given it a name, which may be based on a creed, but never on factual evidence.”
And so connotations imply a cultural agreement. But I never agreed that when I use the word faith, for instance, that I am speaking about religion. The first definition of faith in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is loyalty to a duty, person, or one’s promises; a “sincerity of intentions.”
Even the Bible defines faith in Hebrews 11:1 as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I have faith that I’m not going to die from the West Nile virus...even if I might be statistically vulnerable. That’s why it’s faith, and not based on subscription to a religion. (Won’t that suck if I do die from West Nile?!)
Peter Thompson writes in The Guardian’s article “Faith is not the same as religion”:
“I would say any movement that seeks social change and improvement is a faith-based one. It has to be, otherwise there would be no reason to hope for something better.”
And so we fight wars over interpretations (or connotations) of religion, political documents like the Declaration of Independence, or even thoughtless tweets. It’s because connotations are easily manipulated. How do you use the word faith?
It’s easy to see how artists thinking outside the box can get lost in translation. But misrepresentation, a.k.a. miscommunication, has repercussions that ripple across the industry. It’s a natural outcome when artists give their biggest financial and career decisions to outside representatives, an “other,” be it a label, manager/agent, investor/producer, gallery owner, etc.
Artists that don’t read the fine print in their contracts, or who trade services without appreciating the value exchange, set precedents in the industry that are easy to exploit. For every vulnerability, there are countless “others” ready to capitalize on it.
This is how I see connotation functioning. Trendsetters, change-makers, and social influencers set definitions and connotations. And they stick. Kleenex anyone? That’s a brand name, not a product.
One way to manage artistic communications is through branding. For the Arts, a brand must reflect the artist’s authentic self (even fine art carries a signature). What is art if not a representation of the artist, whether in physical form or perspective? If your brand is not a direct representation of you, you can kiss a long-term career goodbye. Authenticity is sustainable because it adapts with you. My friend in recovery says “evolve or die.” Word.
Finding your authentic self is the tough part. But it starts by first recognizing that nothing you think is static (as in language), is in reality, steady. There is no constant in anything! Quantum physics continues to dissect the speed of light and I demonstrated in an earlier blog that time itself is relative. It’s pretty crazy to let the idea of language being fluid penetrate your worldview. It truly is a paradigm shift.
You know who understands paradigm shifts? Scientists. Those people who taught us that the Earth is round. Theorists think beyond our scope of reality for a living! And then they have to figure out how to measure and prove it (i.e. the scientific method). Just watch Neil deGrasse Tyson’s COSMOS. I see a direct correlation between scientists and artists, who chart new territories of art, forging new ways to express themselves, i.e. their brand.
Since I struggle with words, I prefer visual images, videos, tropes, and especially the all-encompassing hashtag. Hashtags have become an alternative language. If I put a hashtag in front of a word, I’ve branded it with my own connotation. That’s #ArtsMeetsBiz. In my Word-of-the-Days I merge the vocal, visual, and aural to shape meaning. Panoramic, like how I think.
The people who respond to my hashtags reflect my messaging back to me (The Mirror Effect). Like when a bunch of weightlifters started following me and I couldn’t figure out why they were so into my content. Then I saw the way they use the same motivational words I do to push athletic discipline.
So I continue to experiment with hashtags. After all, development never ends. When the response I get back mirrors what I’m trying to say, I know I’m getting closer to authentic branding.
I believe if we took away all language, we would find that we are actually all saying the same thing. We collectively speak the human language - it’s the definitions and connotations of words that trip us up. If we stop trying to divide ourselves by “agreed upon” definitions, we just may see that we can understand everyone better than we thought.
Singer-Songwriter Trevor Hall reflects: "We push love away. It’s so weird that we do that. It’s the only thing that we want, but still we push it away. It’s just so interesting." Word.
It’s worth putting the same time and energy that goes into shaping talent, into finding your brand (aka identity). Does that mean you have to wait to figure yourself out before you start promoting? Of course not. You’re an artist - you (not an “other”) get to decide how, when, and why you promote yourself and your work. Be creative.
But please don’t compromise your authentic self along the way. That sticky truth about pushing love away also applies to loving yourself. Why limit your success to someone else’s definition, when you can create your own connotation and dig deeper? The deeper and stronger your roots, the less vulnerable you are to misinterpretation, misrepresentation, and exploitation.
You will probably understand me if I wish you #HappyHolidays. For anything that doesn’t make sense, please remember this: I’m just trying to find the love inside us all. If love grows in each and every artist, so it does for the Arts as an industry. And since I’ve made my home in the Arts, I, for one, would like there to be harmony. #BetheChange and #LoveYourself
Emileena is writing a book on artist development called ANOTHER WAY. Join the community by attending a monthly Meetup (it's free!).
Original Artwork by Dave Law, freelance visual artist and illustrator. For more, please visit www.davelawart.com.
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