On art and meaning  

Posted by Denis Haack in ,

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.

Prehistoric artwork:
            Bison, Altamira Cave, Spain
            Horse, Lascaux Cave, France

This entry was posted at Tuesday, June 12, 2012 and is filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Dear Denis,
You are so gracious to bring to light things that we ought to be thinking about these days.

Just today I was listening to a lecture about epistemology and it was talking about facts and how if you asked a number of people who witnessed a man being crucified on a Roman cross, what is happening here?: a priest of the high court might say, this is a blasphemer being put to death, a Roman soldier might call the man a insurrectionist, and a young man of about 20 may say, this is the Son of God. The facts about the man are interpreted from different view point. ALL are witnesses of the same act.

The other thing I was thinking about was our scars and the things in our lives that shape us. The scars in particular. If we are a recipient of a wound we interpret the event one way and if we are the one who caused the scar we interpret the same event in a different way. Even though in your post you are talking about art, I think that we can take this into the arena of suffering. There is something greater in store for us if we can see our scars as a part of God's molding and shaping of us as human beings. That the creative process in people requires some degree of pain. (I am not a masochist) I don't think anyone walks through this life free of pain or scars.
I hope that what you are saying and how I am responding reaches to the deep places in my being that need healing.

June 13, 2012 at 2:27 PM

I appreciate your kind words. They make writing this blog so satisfying.

I think you are correct: our point of view or perspective makes a big difference in how we understand or interpret the things that come into our life, including scars and suffering. I suppose that is why (or at least part of the reason) the identical experience will produce bitterness in one person and a burst of creativity in another. And that in turn is related to Christ's very uncomfortable saying that unless we take up our cross we cannot be his follower.


June 13, 2012 at 2:46 PM

As always, thanks for your thoughtful reflection. It's important for artists to talk about their work, but we always run the risk of telling the viewer how to interpret the work. I am always grateful when others see something in my work that I either didn't intend or think about, but when I look at the work from their viewpoint, I understand.

As to "interpretation needs to be faithful to the art under discussion," how can this happen without knowing what the artist intended? Artists share what they see/feel/hear from deep inside themselves. Making art is a process of discovery - of God, of what he makes, of our inner responses to God and his creation. When the artist discusses a piece of his work with someone who sees other than or more than the artist intended, it reveals the richness of creation and the glory of God, and how we are to share with each other and grow together.

And I agree with Catherine that our scars do shape us. And what we have to remember is that God uses everything for our good, even though we don't see what he's doing at the time. And many times, God uses our art to heal, to work through the scars, in order to produce something beautiful in us and in those who see our work.


June 16, 2012 at 6:33 AM

duchamp really championed the production of meaning as collaboration between artist and viewer. "The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative art…"in this vein i think a good artist is both conscious of every decision that was made in the work and the possible readings they contribute to, while a good work is very often an open work, which can be read and re-read in a variety of ways.

June 24, 2012 at 8:53 AM

I appreciate an artist commenting on this, since you bring a perspective that's on the front line, so to speak. I suspect that Walsh, in the quote you noted, is insisting that the discussion must treat the work itself with dignity, so that the interpretation is rooted in the work itself and not merely in the consciousness of the critic. Our perspectives and convictions seem so "natural" that it is possible to "see" them somewhere that they in fact do not appear. As a student of theology I certainly see this happen when people "interpret" a text not according to what the text actually says, but according to their particular theological preference. I may not know what is in the mind of the author or artist, but my response to the text or artwork must be intentionally and carefully tied to that text and/or artwork.
Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

June 29, 2012 at 11:47 AM

The Duchamp quote is really very good, and to the point. Thanks for adding it to this conversation. His insight is true of just about everything. Even if I am showing a friend pics of my family's vacation, my friend brings a context from which he can spot realities in those pictures that I may have missed entirely. It's what makes conversation so rich and true community so essential, I suppose.

June 29, 2012 at 12:34 PM

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