A talented artist has control over how close a viewer can get to a painting’s message. I know what the piece means to me, and I process the meaning while I work. Ideally, I can choose how clear to make that meaning based on what appears in the composition. Obviously I’m not there yet, but hopefully at some point I’ll be able to successfully navigate how wide or thin to make the gap between the messages I send and what the viewer receives.
If I make the meaning subtle—a nice way of saying I haven’t been painting long enough to have a fully developed language of icons—then the viewer has to ascribe their own meaning to the image. It could remind someone of a different time in his or her life, or a story from childhood. The environment might invite the viewer in, giving them a place to escape and rest. I'm satisfied if a person looks at my work and thinks, “This piece of art truly makes me feel _____.” If, by some cosmic connection, they extract the same message I implied, I am really excited and have probably found a new friend.
To me, each thought that passes through a viewer’s mind as they stand in front of a piece of art becomes a part of that piece’s meaning. A pitcher of flowers reminds them that they need to pick up milk on the way home? Fine! That is perfectly valid. I wish I could know all these thoughts, unrelated as they may be to the painting itself.
The point I’m trying to make in this rambling, circular essay is that the subjectivity of art is what makes it so rich and valuable. You could completely write it off under the assumption that there’s no right or wrong answer, and therefore there is no answer. No meaning. No importance.
When I think about the message of a painting, I think about questions rather than facts. Who wrote this letter? Has it been delivered, or is it meant for the writer’s eyes only? Was it opened? How was it received? What’s inside the envelope? Has it been furtively hidden, saved for a later moment of torture or pleasure? Or was it dropped there and forgotten, its contents causing the reader to faint or run out the door?
You answer those questions any way you want. Ask more questions. The changeability of the responses is what matters.