Things Mean Things?!

Can art mean whatever a reader or viewer or listener wants it to mean?

If so, then what’s the point?

But that is the claim of the postmodern world we live in. If we affirm that there is such a thing as “absolute truth,” then we are accountable to that truth when we glimpse it. If there is such a thing as Meaning, then that carries implications for our actions. And that scares us. That means some of us are going to be wrong, really wrong, some of the time.

Growing up, I was taught that there is such a thing as Truth, and that it can be known. I was taught that art conveys Meaning. And not just *any* meaning, mind you. Not meaning we invent. Rather, art pulls back the veil on The Meaning. It’s a meaning that we can discover and explore. We may apprehend different pieces of it, but those pieces will coincide, word together, be clues to a larger mystery. Sometimes, even the artist will not understand what she has revealed.

But often I see interpretation of that meaning written off as “mere opinion,” and thus one critic’s assessment of a work could not hold any more water than another’s. After all, if there is no such thing as Truth, then we’re all safe with our own personal perspectives, our own personal faith, our own personal worldviews, and there’s no room to say that one path is better than another.

I remember the different “meanings” of The Lord of the Rings that the cast members of The Return of the King shared with me and several other journalists during interviews at the film junket. Some declared that the meaning of The Lord of the Rings was that we should all find a “fellowship” of friends, and that this would make life meaningful. Some declared that it was an environmentalist manifesto.

And there was *some* truth in this. Clearly, The Lord of the Rings affirms the power of friendship, even the value of multiculturalism… the importance of loving and caring for those who are different than us. And Tolkien himself spoke of how much he valued the natural world, and how he abhorred what humankind was doing to it. But this was hardly the whole of the truth conveyed in the saga.

One actor declared that the Shire, the home of the Hobbits, was a revelation of what every society should become — a place to celebrate the good things in life. He declared that the distinguishing aspect of the Shire was its lack of any church or religion or creed or morality.

Really? So, the Shire was meant to represent the ideal society? Why then did Frodo have to gain a new vision of a spiritual conflict between Good and Evil in order to rescue the Shire from total obliteration? Why did we see the Shire overrun by evil at the end, the residents’ ignorance bringing consequences? (Oh, wait… the filmmakers conveniently left that part of the story out of the film….)

Most disturbing of all, the film’s own screenwriters declared that The Lord of the Rings is about the “triumph of the human spirit” over evil. J.R.R. Tolkien himself would have brought a sledgehammer down on that interpretation, insisting that it is a story of the failure of humankind, the decline of human history, and the redemption that came about through a higher power when “the human spirit” was not enough. His story clearly demonstrated that humankind’s best efforts cannot ultimately stave off the wages of sin, the consequences of evil.

But did we dare argue with these experts? How could we possibly declare that there could be a “right” and “wrong” regarding interpretation of a work of art? Surely we should all just “find our own truth” and never dare suggest that a person could be wrong.

In my many interviews with filmmakers, the most common “lesson” they share with me is that “Nobody should ever judge another person’s choices.” We should all do our own thing without any fear of correction or wrongdoing.

Isn’t that the lesson of so many American films? It doesn’t matter which train you get on, but just that you get on a train. Follow your own heart. Follow your bliss. Don’t listen to those who speak of a “right path.” Find *your* path.

So imagine my surprise when, at Salon of all places, I read these words today, concerning the disappearance of serious art criticism from newspapers and the cultural landscape:

The issue of whether time and technology have passed the professional critic by is being heatedly debated across all cultural genres. “The culprit is none other than … cultural studies! By treating literature as an impersonal text from which any manner of political meaning can be wrung, cultural studies professors have robbed criticism of its proper evaluative function — the right to say this is good, this isn’t, and here’s why.”

Wow. “Its proper evaluative function”? So criticism is about capturing Truth… with a capital “T”? It’s not just about voicing our many and disparate and equally valid interpretations?

You mean if “my truth” and “your truth” are in conflict, one of us might be wrong? What is “good” might actually be worth arguing about?

Of course, there is another extreme to this question. We can take it too far and declare that we know the Truth so fully that we have the right to judge and condemn others. No. That is the equal (and opposite) sin. The truth that dazzles us gradually through art is vast and mysterious. If we claim that we can paraphrase it and know it absolutely, without room for dialogue, then we make gods of ourselves. We must respond to the truth with humility, and interact mercifully and patiently with others who are exploring it at their own pace.

So we see others who declare the value of a work of art and speak with contempt regarding others’ interpretations.

Folks, it’s not about being Right in order to point out who is Wrong. It’s about growing in knowledge *and* in love, in discernment *and* in humility.

And until criticism can be defended as “a conversation in pursuit of the good, the beautiful, and the true”, it will continue to decline. It will continue to be a bunch of people shouting their own opinions at each other, even as they declare that there is no Truth to which we are ultimately accountable.

Of course, that’s just my opinion.

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  • Becky,

    The emphasis of that statement was on the “without room for dialogue.” And in the context, the emphasis was on not whether or not we can believe something absolutely, but how we respond to others in that knowledge. Do we then look with judgment on others? Is “absolute belief” not still an act of faith, thus requiring us to respond mercifully and humbly to others who believe differently?

    I love what Flannery O’Connor wrote (recently excerpted on Stephen Lamb’s blog):

    I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as a process by which faith is deepended. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is a cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it , keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God. Don’t expect faith to clear everything up for you. Faith is trust, not certainty.

    Further, even if I believe absolutely that “the greatest commandment is to love God with all my heart, mind, and strength,” I cannot claim to *understand* what that means fully. I cannot “paraphrase” what God requires of me without leaving a lot of gray area, territory open for debate and interpretation. Every week, new sermons are preached and new books published on the subject of loving God. And often, I face decisions that show me how little I understand that commandment, as sometimes it’s difficult to know how to show God the love that he requires.

    But I’m straying from the main subject here, which was how *art* conveys truth. Art conveys those truths that cannot be reduced to paraphrase. If we can say definitely “the moral of the story is,” well… then we don’t need the story. The story exists because it allows us to see “the moral” (or better, the wild truth) in deeper and deeper ways, as we consider it from different angles, different perspectives, different stages of our lives.

    I have a friend who has *decided* that the movie No Country for Old Men is an anti-Christian declaration that life is meaningless, and he will not budge from that point. As a result, while a conversation progresses about the richness of McCarthy’s story, and how many intriguing questions about God, morality, and hope are raised in the book, he can only pound on his one piano key and keep insisting that the movie offers nothing meaningful whatsoever. It’s a little unsettling, as he insists this without any regard to the conversation going on around him and what other people are gleaning from the story.

    And yet, while I believe that I understand the story better than him, I have no place to judge him or condemn him for his interpretation. I can only say that I find no fruit along the path he has chosen, I glean no reward from taking that position. What I see in McCarthy’s work does not support my friend’s perspective of it, as far as I can tell.


  • I appreciate your premise, Jeffrey. Good thinking. Towards the end, however, you made a comment I see a little differently. You said: If we claim that we can paraphrase it and know it absolutely, without room for dialogue, then we make gods of ourselves. I have to disagree with that as a blanket statement. I think there are things we can know absolutely, without room for dialogue, though I always think dialogue is good. I’m thinking here of clear dictates from Scripture. I don’t think I enter in (and therefore am not making a god of myself) when, for example, I say unequivocally the greatest command is to love God with all my heart, mind, strength. It’s not really an issue up for grabs as far as I’m concerned. Not because I say so. I think it’s why we have the Bible and not just the Holy Spirit.


  • jacqo

    Intersting post thank u Mr Overstreet. of most critics, i always think of Woody Allen in Annie Hall breaking the fourth wall
    as wikipedia states succintly while waiting in ” a cinema queue with Annie and listening to someone behind him expound on Marshall McLuhan’s work, leaves the line to speak to the camera directly. The man then speaks to the camera in his defense, and Allen resolves the dispute by pulling McLuhan himself from behind a counter to tell the man that his interpretation is wrong.

    Yet even from those far wiser….

    “It is, as it were, a new trick of what is false to present itself as “truth” and to say to us: over and above me there is basically nothing, stop seeking or even loving the truth; in doing so you are on the wrong track…..Falsehood however has another strategem. A beauty that is deceptive and false, a dazzling beauty that does not bring human beings out of themselves to open them to the ecstasy of rising to the heights, but indeed locks them entirely into themselves. Such beauty does not reawaken a longing for the Ineffable, readiness for sacrifice, the abandonment of self, but instead stirs up the desire, the will for power, possession and pleasure. It is that type of experience of beauty of which Genesis speaks in the account of the Original Sin. Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was “beautiful” to eat and was “delightful to the eyes.”
    The beautiful, as she experienced it, aroused in her a desire for possession, making her, as it were, turn in upon herself. Who would not recognize, for example, in advertising, the images made with supreme skill that are created to tempt the human being irresistibly, to make him want to grab everything and seek the passing satisfaction rather than be open to others.”

    from “”The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty”
    Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI): Google this

    The critic’s symbol should be the tumble-bug: he deposits his egg in somebody else’s dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.
    Mark Twian- Notebook, 1904

    The artist doesn’t have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, the ones who want to write don’t have the time to read reviews.
    William Faulkner

  • sjdeal

    That was a good article.

    I think what you’re seeing though is the conflict that arises between an author’s intention and a reader’s interpretation.

  • Concerning interpretation of the Bible, Peter Rollins makes a distinction between an infinite number of interpretations and a transfinite number of interpretations. Infinite would mean any interpretation of a particular text is valid. However, he prefers to use the term transfinite, which means an infinite number of valid interpretations within boundaries. For example, there are an infinite number of values between 1.0 and 2.0. However, 2.3 is not valid.

    Anyways, I found this helpful as a way of viewing interpretations of texts, works of art, etc. Perhaps it relates here.

  • “But why is it that ‚Äòtruth engenders hatred‚Äô? Why does your man who preaches what is true become to them an enemy when they love the happy life which is simply joy grounded on truth? The answer must be this: their love for truth takes the form that they love something else and want this object of their love to be the truth; and because they do not wish to be deceived, they do not wish to be persuaded that they are mistaken. And so they hate the truth for the sake of the object which they love instead of the truth. They love truth for the light it sheds, but hate it when it shows them up as being wrong. Because they do not wish to be deceived but wish to deceive, they love truth when it shows itself to them but hate it when its evidence goes against them. Retribution will come to them on this principle: those who resist being refuted the truth will make manifest against their will, and yet to them it will not be manifest. Yes indeed: the human mind, so blind and languid, shamefully and dishonourably wishes to hide, and yet does not wish anything to be concealed from itself. But it is repaid on the principle that while the human mind lies open to the truth, truth remains hidden from it. Yet even thus, in its miserable condition, it prefers to find joy in true rather than in false things. It will be happy if it comes to find joy only in that truth by which all things are true‚Äîwithout any distraction interfering.”
    –Augustine, Confessions

  • azhiashalott

    Thank you! Thank you! Out of the many wonderful posts I’ve read on your site since discovering it over a year ago, this is probably my favourite. Well said! That is exactly what I try to express to people when I tell them why I love studying literature and the arts — and why I think it is important to look deeper into movies and books than to perceive them as mere entertainment.

  • Bravo. Well said.

  • judg

    And a very fine opinion it is too.

    Sanity is breaking out all over…

  • facesunveiled

    I think the reviewers in the Salon article were more concerned with “good” as in skillful; something that should be appreciated for its own sake because it’s pretty and interesting, which is a prior question to how True/important it is. That part of the article was more a reaction against using literature and art to bolster one’s ideology.

    But about the “lone wolf” phenomenon that’s so prevalent and even celebrated today: One of the reasons I liked Into the Wild so much is that it takes a very overt example of someone following his own leading, even while everyone he meets is telling him his path isn’t the best one (I loved Hal Holbrook’s words especially), and it follows him to the end of that path, at which point he finally realizes he’s been pursuing the wrong goals the whole time.