The Act of Naming

Posted by Sarah Jane on January 5, 2010

One of the hardest parts of art-making, at least for me, is bestowing a title on the work. Whether one is naming an infant, a city, or an art object, the act of naming has always been understood to be powerful and mysterious. With a name comes identity, definition, and belonging.

In my art-making, I like to put this off until the last possible minute, holding out in desperate hope of gaining a better understanding of this new thing I have made. Even that is not a flawless system, because many times I don’t fully understand my own artwork until I’ve watched viewers interacting with it. And so the act of naming is fraught with uncertainty and guesswork and hope.

Since I’m a real language nerd, naming also tends to involve a complex dance with the thesaurus. I am consistently attracted to unfamiliar words and phrases, and those with multiple layers of possible meanings — language that challenges viewers to stop and play with the new ideas, rather than jumping to easy conclusions. (I’m not interested in making my viewers feel stupid, though, so I always provide a definition when using unfamiliar words.)

I’d be interested in hearing from some readers, though. What do you think is the relationship between an artwork and its title? Is it possible for a poorly-chosen title to undermine the power of a work of art? How do you go about choosing a name for your own work?


5 Responses to “The Act of Naming”

  1. Stephen said

    Hey Sarah Jane. As a poet, I think names can make a huge different in how a poem is interpreted. A friend used to include what a professor called “thesis lines” in her poetry. It was a line that conveyed the main thought of the poem, but didn’t really fit in. The professor’s advice was to take the line out and use it as a title. Her title contained the main argument (for lack of a better word) of her poem. Without a name, the readers lose a key aid in interpreting the poem. So, in my mind, a good title provides insight into the art it stands in for.

  2. Sarah Jane said

    That’s a great example, Stephen, and one that I may use with my students this semester. I wish that we talked more about titles in an academic setting — it’s not something I’ve ever learned about in class — because you’re absolutely right that titles affect the way the work is interpreted. I feel like a good title should be a kind of compass, helping the viewer (or reader!) to orient his or her senses in a particular direction when experiencing the work. More to come on this, I think…

  3. meika said

    I use the act of naming to finish the process of making the art work. It’s not an afterthought, and the ideas don’t drive the art (into a mannerist frenzy). It’s a process, not a practice for me, and finding a way to finish is always an issue.

    The link with writing/poetry is a big part of naming for me as I am new to sculpture, and while I say I no longer write for humans, with naming my work a major part of my process (to mix metaphors) I haven’t burnt that bridge and maintain the old within the new.

  4. magnificent issues altogether, you simply won a brand new reader.
    What would you suggest about your put up that you just made some days ago?
    Any certain?

  5. The other day, while I was at work, my cousin stole my iPad
    and tested to see if it can survive a 25 foot drop, just so she can be a youtube sensation.
    My apple ipad is now destroyed and she has 83 views.
    I know this is entirely off topic but I had to share it with someone!

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