The real pleasure derived from asking what artworks mean drives us to expend so much cognitive energy analysing and discussing cultural artefacts: not just the paintings, sculptures, and installations one might encounter in mainstream galleries, but also novels, films, music, video games, poems, graffiti, comic books, theatre shows, dance performances, and whatever else. Despite both that pleasure and the seriousness with which we take that pleasure, the definition of artistic meaning is often unclear. Consequently, philosophers of art and philosophers of language tend to use a variety of non-overlapping definitions for meaning: as a matter of authorial intention, as the opinions of artworld publics, or as private exegesis.
This book takes a different approach. Rather than working from within philosophy of art or philosophy of language, this book begins with the claim that artworks constitute a special class of tool. Like other tools, artworks are objects that have functions and that furnish affordances. Unlike other tools, though, the functions artworks have and the affordances they furnish are a consequence of a rich—and surprisingly recent—historical and material tradition: a tradition wherein we take artworks as meaning-making things with something to say.