Before responding any further to David Court or Scott Lyall, I want to assess the progress of the discussion so far. This section of the blog started off with some questions about titles, and titles expanded into captions, and then took a turn toward backstories. These are three kinds of textual supplements to abstract works. The title of an abstract work of art can have a very strong effect on how we see it, much more so than the descriptive title of a figurative piece. We could say “that picture by Rogier van der Weyden of Christ being taken off the cross,” or we could say “van der Weyden’s Deposition“—really it’s the same thing, and a descriptive title like that leaves little space for literariness of any kind, in fact probably precludes it. On the other hand, if collaged tissue papers made in Russia before the revolution are entitled Cosmic Energy, or Victory over the Sun, or some such thing, it means a lot, and adds a lot. It’s a very heavy interference in the business of the work.
And as I discussed earlier, with reference to Rothko, there doesn’t actually have to be a poetic or otherwise evocative title attached to the work for the implicit caption to operate the same way, providing a lot of content that otherwise might not occur to even the most sensitive viewer. So in this sense, a figurative work could be more autonomous, meaning more productive of its own meanings, than an abstraction, a counter-intuitive thought but a correct one.
Titles are then an important resource for abstraction; they can help to bring works without images or depictions into closer relations with life, politics, history, what you will, but in the process the object itself seems to be diminished, to have less reason to exist for itself. If backstories today tend to make explicit what formerly was implicit, do they then accelerate the demystification of art, its reduction to factuality and objecthood, and does the “presence” or aura of a work depend to some degree on the unstated backstory or caption? If so, this is to take the opposite tack than I did earlier, where I suggested that backstories are a way to restore meanings lost with the historical evaporation of presence.