A Message in a Bottle
Cinema & New Media Arts | On Oct 21, 2012
Whether an artist realizes it or not, every technical decision she makes in her studio proves what kind of artist she is and will be in the world, what kind of witness she will be to art. A work of art is much more and other than a confessional record of the artist’s feelings or emotions, or the result of her so-called “creativity” and “innovation” (both words I find unhelpful). A work of art is an event which unveils a world, and in the process makes a claim on its audience to believe it. Made in and through the artist’s irreducible individuality, hewn through her experience in and of the world, and wrought in the most private of spaces (her studio), the work of art discloses a world for the world when it leaves the studio. Yet a work of art is not offered to the “world” in the abstract or in general. It is offered to a viewer, one who stands in front of it, allows herself to be confronted by it. It is offered to me. At that particular moment when I come upon this painting in a gallery or a museum, I am the “world” to whom the artist is offering her world, as it unfolds toward me and my world.
Yet the artist does not know me, does not know the me or the you who will be confronted by the work. In a provocative essay, entitled “To the Addressee,” the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam claimed that writing a poem is like putting a message in a bottle and throwing it into the ocean. Whoever comes across the bottle and reads the message, is the addressee, the intended reader. It is written to and for him. Mandelstam suggests that the poem creates its reader, or, perhaps even more suggestively from a theological perspective, elects its reader, actualizing, or bringing to be its audience one person at a time, across time.
This is not how we, as evangelicals, like to think about art, and, in fact, like to regard anything related to culture, for that matter. We are the ones impatiently in control. I am the one that sees a work of art; I am the one that “interprets” it, vetting its appropriateness according to a list of my own criteria, certainly not drawn from the history and tradition of art that exists outside of me. I am the one that judges a work of art and its “appropriateness.” I am active and the work of art is passive. I am the subject and the work of art hanging there on the wall of the museum or gallery is the object of my efforts, my work, my actions. The work awaits my justification and my use. And that justification and use has most likely to do with cultural politics, with winning the culture wars, staving off the encroachments of secularism, postmodernism, or whatever bogeyman “ism” is deemed a threat to “Christian values.”
But that is simply not how art behaves. From an aesthetic point of view, we are passive. The history of criticism is the history of reflection on the relationship—the struggle—between a work of art that exerts itself on the viewer, reader, listener through time, through generations of viewers, readers, listeners.