Art and Explanation

Art and Explanation August 7, 2012

Susan Sontag has a point. In her well-known essay, “Against Interpretation” (1966), Sontag argues that the classical mimetic theory of art has created an unnecessary distinction between form and content, which modern (and now postmodern) theories have merely intensified. Interpretation presumes that art must have content that can be extracted for use outside the work. Sontag writes, “Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work. The task of interpretation is virtually one of translation.” In the hands of interpretation, art becomes, at best, merely the visual illustration of an idea best expressed through other means.

The implications are considerable for writing about art from a self-consciously Christian perspective. Christianity presumes a meta-narrative, or an over-arching unified story, in which “all things” are made through, and hold together in Christ (Col 1). One of the many tensions between art and the Christian faith is that art and meta-narratives fight against one another. The work of art exists in the world in its own glorious singularity. The meta-narrative is all encompassing. It is a unified worldview, a framework within which everything has a place and everything makes sense. The role of art criticism, in this context, is to demonstrate how a work of art fits securely into this schema. For these interpretions, whether Marxist, Freudian, Formalist, or neo-Calvinist, art is significant only insofar as it affirms and strengthens the meta-narrative owned by the interpreter.

What do meta-narratives presume and why do works of art resist them?

Meta-narratives are stories that presume The End. But they presume not only that there is such an End but also how particular works of art fit into it.

The consequences are dire. Art comes to possess its integrity only insofar as it can be used in an interpreter’s meta-narrative, grist for the interpreter’s ideological mill. Art is deprived of its own integrity as a world-making work, as an artifact of human intentionality that pushes back on our meta-narrative urges to reconcile the past and the future, to make sense of it all. For Luther and Calvin, the human heart is an idol-making factory. It is just as accurate to say that the human heart is a meta-narrative factory, churning out explanation after explanation, justification after justification, in labyrinthian stories in which we, of course, are the hero, our beliefs vindicated, and others (including works of art) simply become bit players in our own idolatrous epic.

For Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer, this human tendency to explain, to find meaning, is the manifestation of the old Adam.

In our time and space, with all its hopelessness and obscurities, we do not live by sight. Here and now it is only the old Adam with his justifying thinking that attempts a comprehensive theory of world history. The old Adam within us wants to find meaning; he is concerned to assure himself about the meaning of the whole. (Living by Faith35)

The danger is not holding a belief in the whole, or The End. It  is to “explain” that whole or End through the circumstances of art, through the circumstances of our lives, through what we see (a theology of glory) rather than what we hear (a theology of cross).  Sts. Paul and John write that it is in Christ that all things have their being, that through Christ all things are made, and that Christ is working to make all things new. “All things,” includes specific works of art. But the temptation is to confuse the mysterious unity of God’s story with our cheap and idolatrous versions, rushing too hastily to make a work of art work for me, the interpreter, under the guise of a “Christian interpretation,” when in reality such interpretation is really my own justification. (The temptation to make the work of art function as a tool for my own justifying work is a constant presence for the critic, as much for the Marxist as it is for the Neo-Kuyperian.) To enlist art into my own justifying efforts risks depriving the work of art of what it can be, that is, a harbinger of a “deeper magic” at work in the world, the magic of grace. Unfortunately, what passes for Christian art education or theology and the arts is in fact an idolatrous worship of a particular ideology or meta-narrative which art is enlisted to support (i.e., The Christian Worldview) and grace is forgotten.

As the Bible reveals, especially with Job, Jonah, and the other prophets, God is a moving target. His overwhelming love and grace cannot be explained and interpreted. The Spirit blows where it may. While we might affirm the Christian meta-narrative as an act of faith, that in Christ all things are being made new, how it is being written is God’s work not ours.

And this is a source of great freedom.  As Bayer continues,

Faith frees us from this concern [the meaning of the whole]. It enables us to accept the finitude of our lives and of the many histories into which they are interwoven in the battle for justification, the life-and-death struggle for recognition. We can accept our finitude, yet still with sorrow and melancholy, lamenting our transitoriness (Living By Faith, 35).

Art helps us live in the moment without having to explain it, to find “meaning” in it, to find how God is “at work” in my life and explain his purposes.  The responsibility of the Christian critic is to preserve that distinctive space that art can create, a space that allows us to feel his grace, which only exists and comes to us in the present moment, a glorious moment that needs no interpretation, explanation, or justification.

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  • John Murphy

    Okay, of what use is a critic if art needs no interpretation, explanation, or justification?
    Also, if I understand you correctly, you are implying that there can be no such thing as a “masterpiece” because that would imply that someone interpreted it.

  • I love that the need to explain and draw meaning from everything is analogous to idolatry in this essay. I agree wholly, especially when set against the lens of Grace. Grace cannot be explained, that’s part of what shows us it’s power. I feel that if it could be it would cease to be Grace.

    What I wonder is, if art exists within it’s own meaning as an independent entity, how are we able to determine “good” from “bad” art, or if such things exist? If they do not exist, then what is art? Or is art only art when it evades such labels? Or, perhaps art becomes such by the passage of time?

    I love where you’re going here, but I wonder at the reality of art outside the bounds of a meta-narrative. Can you explain further?


  • Kelly E. Howard

    I like this.
    Possibly, I might add that art too is a moving target.
    Often overwhelmingly beautiful, void of explanation or justification, but rather simply felt with the heart.