Hello there, Sarah the Frase here, guilty as charged for saying the following about art:
“I don’t get it.”
This little four-word sentence can mildly irk or deeply wound an artist. It depends on who is saying it, and how much has gone into the work being shown. The power of these words also lives or dies in the strength of the artist’s need to be understood.
For many of us, the early reception of our art was one of our first experiences of being understood by others. How our art is received now is no mere question of will power but connects to deeply rooted needs within us. Artists create to communicate and to be known. These are not their only motivators, but they are big ones, otherwise work would never be hung in galleries and names would not appear on book covers. Yet regardless of your work ethic, sincerity, or belabored choices, it’s impossible to create art that is accessible to everyone all the time. Nor should we try to.
Good art challenges the audience’s perceptions of the world so that they cannot leave the encounter unchanged. As theologian Robert L. Short explains:
All real art though it at first may seem to be a most welcome escape from reality will inevitably lead one into a face to face encounter with reality… “Conversation” then arises between the work of art itself and the observer of the work.[i]
Conversations rarely, if ever, go as planned. This has not stopped the human race from talking. But when an artist has had conversation after conversation where the subject matter they value most is not comprehended, it can send that artist into one of two extremes: elitist or sellout.
Elitist or Sellout?
Some artists make it perfectly clear with their interviews and work itself that they don’t give a damn if their work is understood or not. And many in the arts community, Harold Bloom being one example, don’t use elitist as a dirty word.[ii] Some going so far as to declare any art that’s relatable to the masses has ceased to be art and become entertainment. Content to be elite, appreciated by the few or the none, these artists profess to be indifferent to their work being misunderstood. However, the extremity of their stance actually tells another story. Nothing broadcasts insecurity, pain, or fear like a person who is constantly declaring to the world that she is brave. It’s the cop-out of “cool” that so many of us buy into in adolescence and adulthood.
On the other end of the spectrum, an artist may adjust or alter their work so much that the art loses all its uniqueness in order to reach every consumer. For them, the need for their work to be understood is the most important factor in creation. This is why as much as we might enjoy them, we don’t place boy bands in the same category as Adele unless those boy bands go on to reinvent themselves and create the art they want to make like the Beatles did.
And we are not alone in the temptation to be understood. Christian mystic Henri Nouwen called Christ’s first temptation in the wilderness, which He faced and resisted, a temptation to be relevant.[iii]
Relevance does matter, and seeking it shows respect for your audience, but if being relevant is your dominant desire that overrides your love to serve God that indeed may be a temptation to sin. Even those who don’t buy into sin as a concept agree that being relevant shouldn’t be our ruling desire when it comes to creating. Case in point: the many rants millennials make online against “selling out.” An artist can sell out for out for money, or the approval of the masses, or of a select group of other artists they respect.
Neither should we swing the pendulum so far the other way that we make art that is incomprehensible. G.K. Chesterton gives an anecdote in his biography of poet Robert Browning where the poet was asked what one of his poems meant. His reply, “When that poem was written, two people knew what it meant—God and Robert Browning. And now God only knows what it means.”[iv]
Growing comfortable with being misunderstood will protect you from both of these dangers.
Why so Misunderstood?
Art is communication, but of a different kind. If it is good it will provoke and invite the beholder to enter its world. This is because Art, due to its “subtlety or indirectness, has a way of sneaking around ‘mental blocks’ and getting to the heart of the matter where it is capable of deeply and literally ‘moving’—even the most immovable—men and women.”[v]
Where there is subtly, or ambiguity, there will be misunderstanding. At times an artist may not be able to divorce himself from the art he creates, so he also will be misunderstood. This doesn’t mean the artist needs to label himself a misanthrope and take that misunderstanding deeply personally. But it does mean she must bear the pain of her art and herself being misunderstood, and often by the loudest voice in the arena.
Hide or Get Comfortable
There is only one alternative to being misunderstood: hiding.
In the film, I’m Not There, a film that I did not entirely understand but greatly enjoyed, six different actors (seven if you count the narrator) portray folk singer Bob Dylan in different stages of his life. One incarnation of Dylan gives his “seven simple rules for life in hiding.” Rule six is “Never do anything the person standing in front of you cannot understand.” Rule seven is “never create anything, it will be misinterpreted, it will chain you and follow you for the rest of your life.” Yet Dylan’s point is just the opposite of his words—he refused to follow his own exhortation and hide and this is what make him an iconic artist in more ways than one.
To bear the grief or infuriation of being misunderstood is to come out of hiding. And we, brothers and sisters, are not called to hide. Jesus said “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mathew 5:14-15 NKJV). And Jesus didn’t say this to the disciples in a private room either, He preached this to the masses.
Who are some artists in Christ who refuse to hide? How about U2, a band who didn’t let being written off by the majority of the evangelical world stop them from writing “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” They bore the brunt of accusations that they’d written off Jesus, the love of their lives, to write a song that expresses the longing and incompleteness we all grapple with this side of the eschaton. From whom did they learn this maturity?
Jesus. He spoke in parables so that the masses would not understand, but those who were ready to receive God’s message would. As He explains to the disciples in Mark 4:11-12:
To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables so that,
‘Seeing they may see and not perceive,
And hearing they may hear and not understand;
Lest they should turn,
And their sins be forgiven them.’
This scripture makes many of us uncomfortable because it sounds pretty elitist. Except that Jesus does not withdraw from public ministry here and open a private upper room for His disciples who “get it.” Rather, the entire gospel of Mark is filled with examples of the disciples, the ones to whom the mystery of the kingdom is being given, failing to understand Jesus (Mark 8:32–33, 9:33–34, 10:35–41 NKJV). In His use of parables, Jesus recognized that He would lose some of His audience, but that didn’t stop Him from speaking in parables.
In a contentious conversation with the Pharisees recorded in John 8: 28-29, He gives the reason for His confidence in speaking as He does:
“When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He and that I do nothing of Myself; but as My Father taught Me, I speak these things.
And He who sent Me is with Me. The Father has not left Me alone, for I always do those things that please Him.”
Jesus later asks His disciples, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works” (John 14:10 NKJV). In the same conversation He goes on to invite His followers, “Abide in Me and I in you” (John 15:4).
Jesus models for us the only way we can grow comfortable in being misunderstood and invites us into that relationship with God. We abide in Him and let Him work in us and through us. We seek to please Him and believe that He has not left us alone as artists. This process includes thoughtfully considering our audience, as Jesus did (He knows what they will and will not understand John 16:12), and abiding in God so what He wills is performed in our art.
When we are made comfortable in Christ, it is then that our art becomes relevant to others. After Jesus defends His authority to speak on the basis of His unity with the Father it says:
As He spoke these words, many believed in Him.
Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31–32 NKJV).
The irony is that those same Jews who believe Him go on to misunderstand this statement and the remainder of the conversation Jesus has with them. Somehow their belief and misunderstanding co-exist. His audience doesn’t get it, but that doesn’t mean His message is irrelevant. We’re still reading His words today. And their misunderstanding didn’t stop Him from speaking to His audience either because He knows that what He speaks is the truth. Jesus is free and it is He who makes us free.
There is freedom in abiding in Christ, freedom to be misunderstood and to create art.
[i] Short, Robert L. The Gospel According to Peanuts. 16th ed. 1967, 17.
[ii] D’Addario, Daniel. “10 Questions with Harold Bloom” Time Magazine. April 30th, 2015. http://time.com/3841452/10-questions-with-harold-bloom/
[iii] Miller, Kevin A.“3 Temptations of Christ the Leader: They’re not what you think they are” Christianity Today. http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2001/may-online-only/cln10502.html
[iv]1908, Browning and Tennyson, (Combined reprint edition of two biographies; Browning biography was first published in 1903), Robert Browning by G.K. Chesterton, Series: English Men of Letters. http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/09/24/god-knows/
[v] Short, Robert L. The Gospel According to Peanuts. 16th ed. 1967, 13.