Ambiguous Art

I appreciate art, but it can be very ambiguous.  Of course, art-lovers would argue that this is one of its greatest strengths, and I would conditionally agree.  It can leave things open to wondering and interpretation.  It can make people think and ponder.  It doesn’t usually let you arrive at a concrete end of your mental journey.  You just have to keep wondering and wandering, never quite sure if you’ve gotten to the end of what someone is trying to say through the art they’ve produced.

That can all be very helpful in certain contexts and in limited amounts, but at the end of the day this is why also we need rock-solid, clear, unmistakable, undebatable revelation.  We need to know, for sure, once and for all, that something is true and accurate and precise, regardless of how we immediately feel about it.

I enjoy art, but not the kind that’s meant to be so abstract and mysterious and nebulous that it doesn’t actually say anything.  At least anything that I can be sure of.  There are double and triple and quadruple meanings, or endless interpretational possibilities.  I can enjoy abstract beauty for awhile, but then I need regular doses of unmistakable truth. 

It’s like when someone sings a song that sounds very profound but no one actually knows what’s really being said.  It may be beautiful and it may be impressive and it may be full of aesthetic mystery, but at the end of the day, it leaves you hanging.  I’m no enemy of mystery, but I do get frustrated when art is nothing but beating around the bush while trying to impress the masses with some deeper-meaning ambiguity that we might sniff at but never grasp.

Art has its place.  Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.  But sometimes the precision of a thousand words could never be reproduced or represented or amplified by a picture.  All a picture would do is scramble the words together into an impossible mess that has big-picture punch but no painstaking nuance.  I love the divine handiwork of creation; I appreciate a good film that leaves me staggered for the right reasons; I feel deeply about pictures that communicate a memory or strike an impression or devastate with a reality.  Give me a good sunset and I’ll worship the Lord with heart uplifted and hands raised high.  But I can’t stand it when human art is used as a shield of ambiguity to guard us from the invasiveness of precise truth and honest reality.

I don’t mean to denigrate art or to say that undefined aesthetic mystery cannot complement precision and truth.  I’ve read almost nothing on the philosophy of art and I don’t even know the various views of art that are out there (although I do have an imagination and some unripe thoughts).  I do know that there are things that are precisely beautiful, and I love those things, even if their ultimate meaning is unattainable.  But it does make me cringe when an artistic presentation is so intentionally vague that it could be interpreted in a dozen different ways, some wonderful and right and some blasphemous and ridiculous.

One of the most explosive recipes in the world is truth and beauty.  Truth is beautiful, of course, but we don’t always see it that way.  Human art can help us (or it can help us see evil and error in all its horror and devastation).  My prayer is that Christian artists would rise up and employ their talents in demonstrating and promoting the power of truth, the wonder of creation, the value of God, the beauty of virtue, the plight of humanity, the suffering of the world, the need of redemption, and the joy of life lived under God’s salvation and design.


5 thoughts on “Ambiguous Art

  1. Courtney: Thanks for your comments. I hear where you’re coming from.

    I don’t think I’m arguing against forms of art that CAN be misinterpreted, because as you pointed out, many clear things can be misinterpreted. I’m saying that I think there’s not much profit (not none, but not a lot) in things that are DESIGNED to be uninterpretable.

    I’m sure there are some who use abstraction and mystery well and with profit. But I wouldn’t guess that there are many. Perhaps you’re defending those few or insinuating that there are more than I’m aware of, and that’s fair.

  2. Interesting perspective. As a literalist, I understand your thinking. However, I have a difficult time with your view that abstract art lacks value or purpose because it can be misinterpreted (“But it does make me cringe when an artistic presentation is so intentionally vague that it could be interpreted in a dozen different ways, some wonderful and right and some blasphemous and ridiculous). The Word of God is our compass of truth, and it is misinterpreted quite frequently. The misinterpretation doesn’t alter its value or truth, it just hinders its effectiveness. I find the same to be true of art.

    On a different note, I would like to say that I thoroughly enjoy reading your well thought-out/written-out blog and I apologize for not posting until I had a difference of opinion.

  3. Hey Greg: I think it depends on the person and it depends on what you mean by “passion.” I’d probably say passion, pending a definition. But passion doesn’t exclude rationality, although the two are obviously different.

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