A Matter of Ambiguity
Eighteen years ago I was finishing up with my Master of Fine Arts in printmaking. I had been working on my thesis up to this point and I was ready to defend it. The show I had assembled consisted of 8 or 10 etchings (it was a long time ago and I don’t remember for sure) and one big drawing. The big drawing was about 42 inches tall by 30+ feet long. The title of the show was, “The Gospel According to Paul: An Allegory of the Book of Romans”. (I had many things going for me in college, but subtlety and humility were not among them.) Once I really got going on the project, the prints and drawing took something like a semester to complete and the paper didn’t take too long either. I had been eating and breathing this project for months and I was ready to present my argument. I was ready for anything.
The drawing was made firmly in the Reformed Tradition. If you don’t know what that means, it doesn’t really matter for this blog post. Just look up “Calvinism” or something like that and you’ll get the gist. I was at the University of Florida in the School of Art and Art History. This is not the place one goes to find ears sympathetic to historical, conservative Christian thought. So I was ready for any objection to my thesis. I had a great many theological arguments, Scriptural arguments and apologetic arguments at the ready. But what I didn’t have ready was an answer about ambiguity.
In addition to being an outstanding painting professor, Jerry Cutler was a very fine landscape painter and a member of my committee. And he hit me with a question that I did not see coming. “Is there any room for poetry in your work?” This is the only question from my defense that I remember and it is the only question that I didn’t have an answer for. I was silent for a few moments and I simply said, “I don’t know.”
I had it all figured out, I knew what I wanted to say with my drawing and I knew what I wanted people to see in it. This drawing is perilously close to being a simple illustration and not a proper drawing. (For my thoughts on What a Drawing Is, see my previous post.) Since that time I have worked to keep my drawings open and to be suspicious of myself when I think I have the answer. Once a work of art can be pegged to a single, simple meaning, it ceases to be a work of art and becomes propaganda. Not necessarily bad or evil propaganda; it just becomes something… less.
When the idea is more important than the form it takes, then you have left the realm of art. A drawing is a drawing and not an idea. It is physical and cannot exist outside of the physical form it has taken. So when someone asks you if there is room for poetry in your work, I hope you are able to say, “YES!”