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Ambiguity in Art, Part 2*

Monday, 15. October 2018 1:12

In his book, Making Sense of Movies, Robert Henry Stanley says that at the end of the silent era, successful American movies followed six rules, one of which was that movies should be comprehensible and unambiguous. But times change. Now we have sound, and color, and more than a handful of ambiguous movie endings. And if you look at any of the lists, you will discover that these are very well-known and respected movies. Things seem to have changed.

And this change is not just a recent phenomenon. Many critics consider the ending of Casablanca to be at least a little ambiguous. Going even farther back, the enigmatic and ambiguous smile in the 515-year–old Mona Lisa still intrigues scholars and critics today. As a matter of fact, the more we look, the more ambiguity we find in art. For example, most of the paintings of Edward Hopper and Jack Vettriano rely on ambiguity, as do the sculptures of John Chamberlain. Sally Mann’s photography can be ambiguous, and so can the work of Edward Albee and Sam Shepherd. The lyrics and poems of Leonard Cohen can be filled with ambiguity.

So while ambiguity exists in much art and has for centuries, it certainly isn’t found in all art, probably not in a majority of art. My guess would be that ambiguity would found in only a small minority of art works. (Look at how few movies endings are marked as “ambiguous.”) One can speculate that there are two reasons for this: (1) the majority of audience members still expect art to follow Robert Henry Stanley’s rule and be “comprehensible and unambiguous.” Things are easier that way: the audience members know exactly what the artist means and often express their appreciation with their pocketbooks.

(2) The other reason that ambiguity is found in a minority of art works is that ambiguity is difficult to do and must be controlled. If the artist is not careful, ambiguity can easily slip into vagueness and confusion, which is not at all appealing. So ambiguity in art must be handled delicately so that just enough comes through to the audience members to make them think and talk about the work, but not so much that the work becomes obscure.

Am I suggesting that we find a way to introduce ambiguity into our art (if it isn’t already there)? I think that depends on the artist’s goals. If the artist is interested in selling as many pieces as possible or making a very strong statement, perhaps not. Americans seem to spend more for art that is unambiguous. Clint Eastwood’s movies are not ambiguous. Banksy is not ambiguous, nor is Neil Simon. These artists are very direct and do very good work. They have been rewarded by their audiences.

If, on the other hand, the artist wants to let the audience member participate a little more, s/he might be less direct, perhaps leave things in the gray rather than black and white by introducing some controlled ambiguity. It may not make the work better, but it will make it start different sorts of conversations and appeal to a different audience, albeit a minority.

So it comes down to how the artist wants his/her work perceived and to which audience s/he want to appeal. And while I am a fan of ambiguity in art, I have to acknowledge that it doesn’t work for all sorts of art or in all situations. So I think the artist must take into consideration the sort of art he is making and the audience for whom s/he is making it.

 

*”Part 1” was entitled “Brain Clutter and Ambiguity in Art” and can be found here.

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