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.