Integral Ambiguity: Why We Can’t Understand Art

“Is it not strange,” Benedick of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing muses, “that sheeps’ guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?” Tell us something we don’t know, says Terry Teachout, writing about yet another study that affirms the mysterious sway music has over human beings. He expresses impatience with the obviousness of the observation and the elusiveness of an answer to it. Old hat, he says, that music affects us in ways we don’t understand. Whether it be sheeps’ guts or Stravinsky, the puzzle remains: how is it that something with no identifiable propositional content speaks to us, in the way instrumental music so incontestably does?

Instrumental music is, as Teachout says, “radically ambiguous.” It is not meaningful in most of the ways we ascribe meaning, but obviously means a great deal. This assessment holds true of a variety of media that we acknowledge as art–one thinks particularly of performative and visual arts. Is such ambiguity mere perversity on the part of the contemporary art world, or does it indicate something requisite to the art we don’t understand? Could it be that for art to be great, it is necessary that it elude us?

Teachout’s main point is that instrumental music is attractive, though ambiguous–and, as Teachout concludes, attractive because ambiguous. Great art is open in a way which compels. One of the major identifiable downfalls of bad art is that it is highjacked by its own didacticism. It is art turned sermon, ironically hampered from communicating by the artist’s transparent intention to communicate at all costs, even at the cost of her art’s artistry. Bad art is often bad because it “push[es] you around,” as Teachout argues great art does not.

Of course, ambiguity is not sufficient on its own for greatness in art, any more than your not selling any paintartings affirms your genius.  It is surprising, however, what a crucial role ambiguity does play in art. This seems largely an issue of appeal: if art is not open enough to appeal to a wide variety of people over a broad span of time, it will be insular and occasional, too tied up in a particular time and place. It seems at the very least judicious to throw open the doors to one’s art, to invite a multiplicity of interpretation for the sake of a broader appeal. In many ways, great art is about creating a space for movement and for meaning. Or, on another view (and perhaps more in line with the way of contemporary art), it is art which intrudes into the viewer’s space, makes demands without commanding anything, changes without persuasive argument.

It is not just openness, however, that lends the ambiguity of art such power: it is also its inability to be analyzed. Something that we are confident we comprehend is of no interest. In general– as Teachout says–we live in “a prosy, commonsense world where everything has a name and most things have an explanation.” Great art is experienced as transcendent in part because it does not yield itself easily to explanation. Things which we do not fully understand allure and involve us in a way that things we think we know do not.

That great art has such palpable emotional (even spiritual) resonance continues to bemuse since it has none of the identifiable marks of information in which we usually traffic. We understand how information has results, but the affect of great art cannot be broken down into a formula. Art’s success at moving us is ascribable to that very ambiguity which makes its power puzzling. Ambiguity makes a piece offer something different each time we return to it; it is not exhaustible in the way so much entertainment or information is. Because of this, it has a power over us which daily life does not: it continues to command our attention because it escapes our understanding. ‘

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Amy Cannon

Amy graduated Summa Cum Laude from Biola University May of 2009 with a major in Philosophy and a minor in Anthropology and was awarded the Philosophy Student of the Year award by Biola’s philosophy department. Amy is also a graduate of Biola’s Torrey Honors Insitute where she was awarded Torrey’s highest award, the St. Anne’s on the Hill Award. Amy is interested in conversations between theology and literature, a sacramental view of the natural world, and poetry. She is also interested in living well a life characterized by peace and grace, if possible in a beautiful place.

  • artsmith

    I like Art.

    Says- Artsmith