Saturday, June 3, 2017

what art means

I recently posted a picture of a piece of artwork that I found in a gas station. It was a cross with two pistols and some bullets attached to the front of it. I put the picture on Facebook and asked "how do you feel about this?" I received many comments, and most of them were not positive. Which is absolutely fine, as I genuinely wanted everyone to share HOW THEY FELT about the piece, and they did.

But I also promised to share my thoughts, and here they are. Now, if you're not familiar with "tl;dr", it is an abbreviation that means "You are writing too much so I'm not going to read it." It stands for "too long; didn't read". If you want the tl;dr version (aka the Reader's Digest version or the "put it on a bumper sticker" version), here it is: I don't personally like the artwork, but I think it does something very important: it reminds us that the cross was an instrument of violence, cruelty, torture, and death. If you don't want to read alot of art philosophy, you can stop now. Have a nice day.

If you're still with me, I would like to briefly explore why I think this artwork is important. First, we have to consider what the art means. Part of that consideration is what the person who created the artwork meant by it. We can't know what he or she meant without asking him or her. But some of the possibilities include: 1. Just to make some money from the fact that people like guns and crosses. 2. To share his (I'll stick with masculine pronouns going forward for simplicity's sake) belief in God and his reliance on firearms. 3. Just because he thought they looked cool together. 4. To make the point that I receive from the art, being that the guns remind us that the cross wasn't a gentle, kind thing, but a terrible instrument of death. 5. Something else that I'm not clever enough to figure out.

That's the gist of the critical approach (like in literary criticism)... that we consider what the original creator of the art MEANT by it. What he intended to say to his original audience in the social context in which he created it. (We might also consider how true to life the work is, but in this case, the work was meant more representationally than as a direct depiction of reality).

In our post-post modern world, we generally aren't that concerned with what the artist intended. We are far more interested in how WE feel about the work. What does it say to ME? And in that respect, the FEELINGS of the people who replied to my Facebook post are certainly welcome and accurate. That's how they FEEL when they look at the artwork.

But going beyond the artist's intent and the feelings of those who look at it, we can come to another meaning. That meaning takes us to the symbols themselves, and how they speak to us in a Joseph Campbell, archetypal, Carl Jungian kind of way. Now, we have taken the cross, an instrument of degredation, embarrassment and shame, torture and death, on which Jesus was crucified and we've made it into something else. We've made it into a religious symbol. We have worn it and put it on our walls at home and in our churches so often that it has almost entirely lost its original significance. In the Roman world where Jesus was crucified, it struck fear into the hearts of those who saw it. It was the Roman way to threaten people and keep them under control. It was cruel and carried the weight of mortality. Like a gun.

When we juxtapose those two symbols, the cross and the gun, it causes a visceral response. It might even cause the viewer to be nauseated. Because we no longer associate the cross with degredation and shame and torture and death, but instead we see it as a comforting religious symbol, and putting an instrument of death ON it is a travesty and a blasphemy and it is disrespectful.

None of these responses are right or wrong. I'm not saying we SHOULD feel one way or another about them. When we look at the cross with guns on it, we feel what we feel. But we CAN, if we step back and think about it critically, see that it can remind us of the intent of the Roman empire when they crucified Jesus. They meant to shame Him and torture Him and destroy Him, as a gun does.

Paul said he preached one thing, and that was Christ crucified. Not only did he preach only Jesus, but he preached Him CRUCIFIED. His only message, he said, was Jesus ON THE CROSS. Jesus dying, being shamed and mocked and tortured. Because in that moment, He conquered all of those things. He took the cross, an instrument of torture and death, and made it into a symbol of victory and life.

The visceral response we have to guns on the cross can be explained by this transformation, perhaps. That since Jesus made the cross into a sign of His victory rather than just an instrument of death, putting guns on it seems out of place. It seems wrong to us on some deep level.

Is it wrong? Well, it certainly makes us think. And remembering what the cross WAS, and what Jesus did in transforming it, is a good thing I think.