Part of the wonder of art and creativity is that it is possible for more meaning to reside in a piece of art than either the artist or any single viewer of the piece might know.
Some people get skittish about statements like this, and wonder if we haven’t walked out onto a proverbial slippery slope over which we will slide into a pit of unrestrained subjectivity and unfettered relativity. Everyone simply reads into art whatever they want to see without regard to the artist’s intentions—or even what’s actually there in the artwork itself—and before long we’re left in cultural chaos. What’s important to realize, however, is that though such a slippery slope exists, it is not the only path that can be chosen.
To assert that more meaning resides in good art than either the artist or any single viewer knows is not to argue for unrestrained subjectivity and unfettered relativity. It is to argue that the creation God has called into existence is far more unimaginably rich in meaning than any single person—artist or viewer—can possibly comprehend on one’s own.
Actually this turns out to be true about all of life, but we tend to ignore that fact because we are comfortable believing we comprehend how things work and have them under control. In those rare moments when we need help we can call on an expert to restore order by showing us how we can become more productive or efficient. It’s not only more fragile than we realize, it’s delusional but that’s another topic.
In his book exploring the music of Bruce Cockburn, Brian Walsh argues that it is not true that “anything goes” when it comes to interpreting Cockburn’s music. “Any interpretation” Walsh insists, “needs to have merit in relation to the work being interpreted. Interpretation needs to be faithful to the art under discussion.” Still, he asserts, even Cockburn may not have the final and complete understanding of his songs. Walsh explains it this way:
Does it matter whether the artist intended everything that can be interpreted in his work, or even that he would see it all there if an interpreter brought it to his attention? Yes and no. Let me put it this way: while I wouldn’t give the artist the final word on any matter of interpretation of his own work, I am interested in knowing what I can about what the artist might think about a piece of his own work. So yes, the artist has some interpretive authority over his work. But not final or exhaustive authority. Artists can say more than they mean. They can make allusions without intending to do so. But the allusions are “really there!” Or at least they are there if you have eyes to see.
The result of this should not be fearfulness of where interpretation will take us. The result should be wonder at the richness of creation and creativity, gratitude for the allusive nature of art, and a desire to pause, look, listen, and reflect for at least a few moments in our busy lives.
I’d love to hear what you think.
Source: Brian Walsh in Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn & the Christian Imagination (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press; 2011) 32.
Bison, Altamira Cave, Spain
Horse, Lascaux Cave, France