Art is meant to entertain us, to give us pleasure, and to offer fun. It’s also meant to show us beauty—that’s part of the pleasure it gives—and sometimes that beauty points us to the glory of God. Art reaches us through imagination, showing us things rather than telling us things—putting us through experiences which allow us to learn more deeply than we can from abstract explanations or simple statements. That any of this is possible is because there are different kinds of meanings.
What Does It Mean?
After hearing the parable of the Sower in Matthew 13, Jesus’ disciples took Him aside and asked Him why He spoke in parables. His answer included an explanation of the parable’s meaning because they didn’t understand it. When we ask what something means we usually want an explanation in words. But to really understand what art is and how imagination works with it, we have to understand that not all meanings are statements of explanation.
Have you ever heard a song that “blew you away” the first time you heard it? You thought it was wonderful. You had a strong emotional response to it. And if someone asked you, “Why do you like that song so much?” you couldn’t really answer in words other than, “I don’t know.” The song obviously meant a lot to you, even if you could not explain the meaning. Not all meanings can be explained, and not all meanings need words. In the 2002 movie, Signs, aliens are attacking the earth, and a family has boarded themselves up in their house, only to realize that they left their dog outside. The camera doesn’t show us what happens next. From inside the house we hear the dog barking louder and louder. Suddenly the dog makes a biting growl, followed by a whimpering squeal, followed by silence. We know what has happened outside without seeing it or having it explained. Meanings are not word statements only. In short, they are connections. In learning that the letters C-O-W represent a certain kind of animal, I learn a connection: that the word “Cow” means the animal we call a cow. Because imagination can make all kinds of meaningful connections, there are many more kinds of meanings than just the kinds that come with words.
Kinds of Meanings
A meaning may be true or false, logical or illogical, literal or symbolic. It may use language or it may be a picture, a sound, a smell or a taste. A meaning may even be singular or multiple. I remember watching a movie with my daughter when she was very young, and she told me she was getting scared. I had to stop and think about why. It was because the music in the sound track was that suspenseful kind of music which plays before something dangerous or scary is about to happen. She had learned the meaning of that kind of music without consciously knowing it. The smell of apple pie has a very specific meaning: apple pie. But the smell may also mean memories of mom cooking, of Christmas baking marathons, of sitting with my son while we put our warmed up pie pieces into a bowl, scoop vanilla on top, and then smash it all together to eat more like a cobbler than a pie. If I say, “It’s cold out,” you know what I mean. If I say, “Man, it’s as cold out there as a Taco Bell dog on the South Pole,” you still know what I mean. But in the first instance I was being very literal and in the second instance I was being poetic. What you get from the second instance is a lot more than just the literal meaning: you get that it’s cold, that I don’t like the cold, and you get the memory of an old Taco Bell commercial featuring a Chihuahua, the image of such a dog (maybe from the commercial quoting its lines or actually in Antarctica with its little body shaking), images of snow, ice, wind, blizzards and maybe even penguins. Art uses all of these kinds of meanings.
What do pastel colors mean to you? My guess is babies or Easter. There’s a scene in the 1990 movie Edward Scissorhands featuring a suburban street where all the houses and cars on the street are pastel pink, blue, yellow and green. Men walk out of the houses all at the same time, get into their cars at the same time, and drive away at the same time. What does this scene mean? Sometimes we don’t need an explanation; the meaning is there and we can see it. In this scene pastel screams “façade,” and the explanation of the meaning is something like this: suburban life is an artificial world of conformity and fake happiness.
One of the implications of this understanding of meaning is that not all meanings will be truths. Some will be false and some won’t be either true or false at all: they won’t be anything that can be related to reality. Good art will always have more meanings in it than the truth statements we can get out of it. At the same time, when art is true, it will be because its meanings show us things about reality, whether earthly or heavenly. My conclusion this month is that we can add one more element to the purpose of art: it’s there to communicate meaning to us, and so it can also communicate truth.