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The Title: The Aesthetic Significance of the Unique Position of Titles in Art

We can find all sorts of visible parallels between Frost’s poem and Shakespeare’s passage: the boy, like Lady Macbeth, “should have died hereafter”, the word “nothing” denotes the stopping of the boy’s pulse at the close of Frost’s poem and the hollowness of life at the end of the Shakespeare passage, and so on. These details are insignificant. We don’t need to remember Shakespeare verbatim to feel the force of his words in Frost’s poem. Picking at similarities can be fun, but even if these details were non-existent, and we could find nothing of the Macbeth passage in the text at all, it would still be there, looming, casting its shadow over all in the shape of quotation marks, six letters, a comma and a dash. Of course, the poem can be appreciated without knowledge of Macbeth, just as Murakami’s Norwegian Wood and Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden can be enjoyed and critiqued even without any knowledge of the works which are alluded to in the titles. However, it cannot be denied that a key aspect of the impact of these works is being missed out on if we are ignorant of the aesthetic frameworks that they each build upon.

Arthur Danto puts forward an interesting argument for the significance of the aesthetic framework. He refers us to Breugel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, a painting in which the only trace of Icarus are two legs disappearing into the sea, a small detail. Had we not the allusive title to guide our interpretation, the work would be entirely different – the relations between objects would change, the significance of the sun, or the farmer who is not facing the splashing legs, would be drastically altered. “The whole structure of the painting is a function of these being Icarus’s legs” (116), Danto claims, and asks us to consider “the relationship between the compositionally dominant and the cognitively dominant figures” (117). This is a relationship which is of interest to all works of art, but especially those which have an allusion that is in the title, that is, external to the main body of composition. In the case of this painting, what is cognitively dominant is the myth of Icarus, and this shapes our understanding of the composition. How can we understand the light of the sun without reference to the myth, when we know that its rays have just caused a boy to plummet to his death? An analysis of the painting before knowledge of its title would doubtless be different from one when we are given the interpretive lens through which the artist intends for us to see his work, and when “the painting suddenly becomes organized around Icarus, and classes of relationships spring up which simply could not have existed before the identification” (119).

Danto uses this example to posit a theory concerning all titles, not just those which are allusive: “A title in any case is more than a name or a label; it is a direction for interpretation” (119). We might raise our eyebrows, casting our minds back to non-allusive titles. In what direction could we say the title The Day of the Triffids points us, supposing we have no idea what a triffid is or might be? Or what about Waltz in G minor? He continues, “Giving works neutral titles or calling them “Untitled” does not precisely destroy, only distorts the sort of connection here. […] “Untitled” at least implies it is an artwork, which it leaves us to find our way about in. As a final implication of the practice, since the title itself is given by a painter, it presumably implies what he intends by way of structuring of the work” (119).[i] Even the most functional of titles (Waltz in G minor) is telling us some information, such as the musical form of the piece in question, as well as labeling it. We can also say that the direction we are pointed in by the title is often unclear until we have an understanding of the artistic composition: as we read The Day of the Triffids, we realise that in the world of the novel mankind is being usurped by the triffids as the dominant species on the planet, and the grim horror of this, as well as the futility of the characters’ struggles, is consistently reinforced by the ominous title. However, this is not the place to argue in favour of Danto’s belief that all titles are directions for interpretations, as I am concerned with what effects titles may produce, given their unique position. His argument is relevant because it highlights how, compared to normal titles, the allusive title plays a more significant role in determining the aesthetic experience of a work of art, as I shall demonstrate.

Imagine that Lolita was never given that title. In a somewhat misguided decision, Nabokov named his masterpiece Humbert Humbert. How does this title transform our understanding of the text? No doubt differences would exist, tweakings of the aesthetic framework that we have seen is subtley built on and around the word Lolita. Nonetheless, I think it is safe to assume that the work of art itself would not be too radically altered – no doubt it would still be considered a masterpiece of writing, this Humbert Humbert, even if not exactly the same masterpiece that Lolita is in this universe. The transformations exist, but certainly not in the way that the aesthetic effect of Breuger’s painting is dependent on how it is titled. Perhaps this is simply a difference between one art medium and another – that is to say, maybe Danto’s arguments concerning titles are less convincing when carried into the realm of literature? All it takes is for us to consider some of our previous titles to realise that this is not the case. “Out, Out –” would be transformed, as would Norwegian Wood, if either were called Humbert Humbert, as they, unlike Lolita, are built on a pre-existing aesthetic framework, one which permeates every word of the text by occupying the position of the title. Similarly, the painting Eine Kleine Nacht Musik by Dorothea Tanning is powerful because the images she provides rest on the aesthetic framework of Mozart’s song – that we have his melody as a resource is crucial to our experience of the painting, for the same reasons that Danto has given about Breuger’s work. In judging the importance of the title in a work of art, what matters is not the medium but the allusiveness of the title. As we can see from these examples, a title that is allusive provides a greater role in contributing to the final aesthetic impact of a work of art.

There is one final issue which needs to be addressed. If we think of any well-known title, Lolita being a particularly appropriate example, then the title comes accompanied with a resource of words and ideas which has come into existence through our knowledge of the text. This may be direct knowledge, which comes from actually having read the novel, or it may be indirect, from reading a review or hearing about it from a friend, or even from an understanding of the slang “lolita”. In both cases, our aesthetic response to something titled Lolita (whether the novel or a new work of art) is shaped by our knowledge of the original text rather than the title. One could mistakenly confuse this for a vicious circle: if the title gives meaning to the text because the text gives meaning to the title, where does the meaning come from? However, on closer examination this concept poses no problem. In this case, there is a chronological and reciprocal impact: the compositional elements build a conceptual resource around the title, and the title is then loaded with this resource when applied to the body of the work of art. This is the process by which a title gains the resource of its referent, an encapsulation of the referent’s aesthetic framework, so that the empowered words may be lifted by another artist and applied to his own project.

A vast network of meaning and experience has been tied to a few words – the artist, overjoyed, hangs them over his creation, and a new work of art is born, as well as a link between this new piece and the other piece it alludes to. This link is another area of interest, as well as the way it is stronger or weaker depending on the individual. When I read Norwegian Wood, I felt the smiling melancholy of the Beatles’s song colouring and shaping my experience of the novel. However, I cannot listen to the song now without feeling the pain and joy of Toru’s love for Naoko, and experience again his struggle between the past and the present. In this case, the link between works of art is strong and vibrant. However, while my experience of the painting Eine Kleine Nacht Musik is inextricably linked to Mozart’s song, I am quite capable of listening to the song without feeling the later work of art evoked in any way whatsoever. Here, the link is faint, invisible, and, as in the previous example, entirely subjective. My aim is not to show that these particular relationships necessarily exist, but to demonstrate how the body of one work can impact on the body of another via a shared title, and how this process can work both ways, so that not only does the original work shape the new one, but the new may develop and amplify the old. The aesthetic reciprocal impact in this case is between different works rather than between a work and its title, but occurs in much the same way. Both elements may take from and restructure each other, and new artworks have the power to draw out the profundities of their predecessors.

In light of this information, I realise now that I might have named this essay “How Haruki Murakami wrote the “Norwegian Wood” of the Beatles”. It would have been one of many angles with which to demonstrate how titles in the world of art fulfill far more than the functional role of labeling, although this too constitutes part of their power. Most importantly, a title pervades its referent entirely. Imagine if Frost had referenced those lines from Macbeth within the body of his poem. The allusion would no doubt be interesting, but have an entirely different effect to the all-encompassing allusive title that Frost employs. We tend to overlook the significance of titles as we cannot help but think of them as signifiers, shallow surfaces that point to the identities of works of art, always external. To study the identity of the title itself is to reveal the workings of a fascinating component that always contributes, to a greater or lesser extent, to the aesthetic appeal of its referent.

[i] One might question the applicability of what Danto says regarding painting to all other forms of art. After all, the title “Untitled” would certainly have a different aesthetic effect were it applied to a novel rather than a painting, although perhaps this is only due to habitualization. However, Danto begins his book by saying “if anything I write fails to apply throughout the world of art, I shall consider that a refutation: for this aims at being an analytical philosophy of art” (viii). I will follow in the same vein, although I believe that all-encompassing theories, such as the ones I am putting forth, will naturally take on slightly different forms when applied to different arts.



Works Cited


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Murakami, Haruki. Norwegian Wood. Trans. Jay Rubin. London: Vintage Books, 2003.

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