The Title That Focuses Our Eyes ‘On Beauty’

By Rebecca Gill

When we encounter a piece of creative work, be it in a visual or literary form, we are also given a title alongside it. Whether the title comes as a secondary encounter, perhaps seeing the small gallery plaque on the wall after enjoying gazing at a painting; or an inescapably preliminary piece of information such as the title of a book or poem which introduces us to the work before we experience it, reading a title is usually part and parcel of a creative piece of work. It is something we take for granted in its dutiful presence in the gallery or the book or album cover, yet how often do we really stop to notice the impact it has on our experiences of the work it introduces.

Despite us being able to read a poem or see a piece of art without knowing its title and gain something from the experience in placing our own personal ideas and meanings onto the work, the title is still something we look to, not least as a means of recognising and identifying a work, but as a way of accessing the work’s true meaning. This is not to say that in knowing the title of a piece of work we cannot place our own meanings on it, but it must influence our interpretation of the work.

John Fisher’s essay Entitling explains the title of art work as hermeneutical – ‘titles are names which function as guides to interpretation’ – they have a purpose beyond a means to identify the work of art, they are the key which opens the door to interpretation, the intended meaning. If we look to art for meaning, the title is the clue to its discovery. Fisher claims titles ‘tell us how to look at a work, how to listen.’ The title, in this sense, is providing us with the lens through which to observe the art work with. This perhaps does not account for those works of art titled ‘Untitled’ but it does provide a valuable perspective on the art works title.

The same is true for novels, poems, songs, musical scores, films; the title provides us with an insight to the work’s artistic intentions – if there are any – and heightens our experience of the work. A novel I recently read which the title really does this for is Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. The novel contains a heterogeneous assemblage of characters who from the Belsey family, around whom the narrative surrounds. Smith’s novels provides a narrative dealing with issues within a family who value different cultures and within the academic and art world. Yet this fictional story of family heartbreak seems far removed from Smith’s academic style, theoretical title ‘On Beauty’. This is exactly Smith’s intention; as soon as we read the title we anticipate something didactic within and feels almost surprised when we encounter the somewhat ordinary, relatable characters, who don’t really do anything in the novel outside of the ordinary. Smith’s title, however, disturbs our usual book reading experience, we spend the duration of the novel awaiting the theory of beauty the title promises us. But this never comes. We eventually come to realises it is our sense of connection with the characters; the connection to ourselves and our own lives and experiences; it is seeing our human capacity for love, despair and ecstasy displayed on the page which is the beauty Smith wants us to see.

Smith has noticed ‘there is something about love that does not sit well with the literary academy,’ and this is what works so well about her title – it allows the reader to enjoy the book for its essential quality of being beautiful. Smith feels the practice of literary study has prevented us from enjoying the novel in this way, as we might a work of art purely for its visual aesthetic qualities. Her title, in its theoretically stylised form rationalises the appreciation of a book’s beauty as an important part of its literary value; it both embeds the book with this rationalisation and simultaneously permits us to abandon all rationalising for our enjoyment. The title influences our reading of the book, asking us to find the beauty within.

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