What’s in a Title?

This is an excellent painting. The lighting, the composition, the execution—they’re all excellent. I look at it and don’t know what is going on exactly, but I love it. I want to know more about it. I want to know what compelled the painter to make this image.

So I look at the title.

The title is “The Old Shepherd’s Cheif Mourner,” painted by Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873). I enjoyed the technical excellence of the painting, but it wasn’t until I read the name that I truly appreciated the painting’s narrative excellence as well. I look at the painting again, and now the dog’s face takes on a heartbreaking sense of loss. Layers of story now begin to unfold around the image for me. Most of the time I dismiss titles as unnecessary nonsense by which lazy artists prop up technically inferior work because it lacks the ability to stand on its visual merits alone.

And while it’s true that in the past there have been instances where artists have taken a shortcut to applause by coming up with names for their work that sound fashionable or hyper-intellectual, there have also been hapless artists who just wanted to paint something simple, like a lake, because it made them happy, but who then felt compelled to add some title implying that the image is really a statement on the post-industrial consumerism or the plight of the proletariat in eastern Bulgaria or some fashionable elitist cause. All because they were afraid of their work being labeled sentimental or anti-intellectual because it was representational and wasn’t shocking. This appreciation of psuedo-intellectual titles seems to have fallen away somewhat in the past few years. (I personally thank Frank Frazetta and video games for this.) But there even exist online name generators to lampoon the whole idea of this sort of naming. Consider this site, which will generate three pieces of abstract art at random, all with suitable titles.

However, this cultural reaction against fancy names has its drawbacks–mainly that we may forget the great value of a title. I certainly do. In my efforts to avoid trying to sound pretentious I generally name my work something like: “Painting #2,” “Monster #15,” “George Washington Field-Tackling a Bear #34,” and so on. But there’s a classical use for titles. And that is to take an image that is already technically excellent on its visual merits alone, and then provide the viewer with further context and insight into it.

“The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner” is an excellent example of how a name can add to an image, and not be a replacement for technical excellence in one.