The Meaning of Significance

Emily and I think differently about art.  Without disregarding the depth and subtly of her thinking or my own, she said to me a few days ago, “Paul, I think you value the concepts behind art whereas I value the craft that makes it.”  Her observation was one of the most succinct differentiations I have heard between concept and craft.  Sometimes I’m not sure what art really is.  Sometimes I’m not sure what architecture really is and the more I try to find out the less I feel like I know.  If this uncertainty in moralistic, I think it is a good thing.  Searching for answers through abstract questioning and/or pure inquiry can be profound.  I understand profound to mean deeper insight and understanding that penetrates to our being and is beyond superficial.  To me, profundity seems to connote elitism.  I don’t know why; maybe because profundity is assumed to be too lofty for people who don’t pursue it.  That would be a sad misunderstanding.  Why can’t profundity saturate the ordinary?  Why can’t ordinary things be profound?

As a student of architecture, I view art architecturally.  As a student of art, Emily views art artistically. The sentence I wrote before this one is redundant.  Of course Emily views art artistically; doesn’t everyone view art artistically?  Is it possible to view art any other way?  Art is art and can only be viewed artistically.  How, then, can I view art architecturally?  Is architecture a type of art?  (Architecture as the art and science of building is a gross oversimplification.)  What makes a painting art?  What makes a building architecture?  Can architecture exist in the drawing of a building?  When one says, “that building is significant,” does he know what he is saying?  (And I don’t claim to know what I am saying.)  So often the word is used to mean importance.  What is the difference between “important” and “significant?”  What is the meaning of significance?

Dan Flavin’s Untitled (to Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Inch) hung before me at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art for the first time on March 3rd, 2012.  Four fluorescent tube lights of about seven feet in height were installed onto the wall in a row.  From left to right the tubes were pink, daylight, cool white, and yellow fluorescent light (not neon light, that is different).  For several minutes, I stood in front of the tubes just staring.  A seminar I took on minimalism a couple years before made me feel anticipation to see something amazing.  Without doubt, it was pretty amazing.

After staring at the tubes for several minutes, I realized that experiencing the thing is nothing like seeing photographs because the photographs don’t actually burn your eyes.  I began looking at the wall away from the bright tubes so that I could see them.  I’m not sure how to describe this idea of looking away from the tubes so I will describe what it is like.  It is like a Joseph Albers painting.  Albers’s paintings are superimposed squares of like colors, sometimes different colors.  The squares are not concentric; they are all shifted away from the center of the painting as a whole.  Thus, one can perceive these paintings as a series of bands with a square center or a series of superimposed squares.  The latter is conceptually projecting outward; the former is conceptually projecting inward.  The various offsets from the center cause one’s eyes to constantly move around the painting as if searching for the center but another offset prevents that discovery.

After a few minutes of staring, the brightness of Untitled (to Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Inch) prevents one from seeing the physical tubes themselves and, like an Albers painting, one searches for the tubes by looking away from the tubes.  They are then emptied of all color.  At this point one can see why the installation exists.  One’s eyes are impaired to the hardware and glass and are opened to light and space.  The power of that installation (and I assume of any Flavin installation) is its capacity to cause one to see and experience not fluorescent tubes, but pink, daylight, cool white, and yellow fluorescent light itself in space.  Conceptually, it materializes space.  It makes what is nothing perceptual as opposed to conceptual.  It gives presence to what is absent.  It goes beyond metal and glass.

I won’t pretend to be able to describe that which is beyond.  Such an interpretation may blind one from what is actually there; interpretation makes objects accessible and subjective.  Representation omits subjective intervention.  Analysis views objects objectively.  Objects are not always accessible.  It is arguable the metaphysical aspects of Flavin’s installations are inaccessible and that interpreting what is absent, nothing, metempirical, and metaphysical in art is impossible.

Like Cara’s post, this is also one of questions and not answers.  I hold the belief that theoretical work in architecture is and always will be invaluable even when it seems of no use.  Thanks to Jillian, I know Oscar Wilde felt the same way.  He says, “We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it.  The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.  All art is quite useless.”  Pure inquiry is also invaluable to any discipline of art.  But one thing I have learned from talking with my brother Andrew is that pure inquiry is the gate to profundity because it leads to profound answers.  I would say it is the gate to sublimity if I knew that to be true.  Jonathan Edwards was profound; a child can also be profound.

For a good article on Flavin’s work, read Tiffany Bell’s “Fluorescent Light as Art”  in the exhibition catalogue, Dan Flavin: A Retrospective and its expanded edition Dan Flavin: The Complete Lights, 1961-1996 (New York: Dia Art Foundation in association with Yale University Press).

(All images borrowed from


  1. Upon seeing this, my mom is telling me a story of how, when my dad was 26, the ad agency he worked for asked him to do some redecorating. The first thing he did was ask them to put neon light tubes in the hallways. He also used basketballs for planters.

    P.S. As I’m looking through more Flavin images on the Interwebz, I’m finding that I’m much more inspired by them if there’s a person in the photo as well, silhouetted or interacting with the light somehow. The green feature image you chose is my favorite.

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