The Context of Art
~By James McCullough and Wes Vander Lugt
In two previous posts, we articulated an understanding of art as a communicative creation involving three interwoven strands. First, we suggested that art involves craft, the skill and style distinguishing art from other kinds of human making. Second, we indicated that art involves content, the “story” a work expresses or participates in by means of paint, melody, structure, movement, language and other artistic mediums. In this post, we are we are focusing on the entire setting in which art is created and received, because art involves context.
Artists do not create contexts; they work within them. Context is the web of complex circumstances in which artists work in relation to their physical environment, historical trends and traditions, social movements, cultural values, intellectual perspectives, personal commitments, and more. Likewise, art is received within a context of corresponding dynamics that shape meaning and interpretation. As such, context is an inescapable dimension of art in both its production and its reception and interpretation.
To clarify the role context plays in art, it may be helpful to use biblical exegesis as an analogy. When reading Scripture, we need to be attentive to the there and then context of a passage and its original meaning, while seeking to discover the here and now significance of the passage. For example, Paul‘s letters communicated something to people in the first century before they communicated something to us. In a similar manner, an artist makes and expresses something relevant in a there and then context, however revolutionary and progressive the art may be. Likewise, the capacity of a work of art to communicate effectively in the here and now is an attestation of context-transcending qualities in a given work or performance. Identifying these qualities is the work of art criticism and education. The realization of context and context-transcending qualities gives rise to a whole history of art reception, and plays a part in explaining the phenomenon of the “classic” in a given genre of art.
Recognizing the context of art—both of its origin and reception—also requires us to realize the multivalent and open-ended character of art interpretation. For example, the “meaning” of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony will vary depending on whether we are referring to its première in 1824, when Wilhelm Furtwängler conducted it in Berlin in 1942, or when Leonard Bernstein conducted it before the newly opened Berlin Wall in 1989. Continuities and discontinuities of meaning abound. A sensitive and informed engagement with a work of art, however, will be cognizant of its originating context in all its complexity, while continuing to interact with meanings forged in ever-changing contexts of reception. Moreover, highlighting the context of art allows us to relate, when possible, aspects of authorial intent in dynamic interplay with other contextually relevant interpretations in our own communicative encounters with art.
The driving motivation in this series of posts on the craft, content, and context of art is our desire to make art accessible to a wider audience so that they might enjoy and discover how art plays a significant role in their lives. We find that analyses of art focusing solely on emotional expressiveness, moral appropriateness or even redemptive potentiality place undue limits on understanding and engaging with art. By contrast, we desire to be attentive to art on its own terms before evaluating or imposing meanings on it. We believe that focusing on the craft, content, and context of art enables us to follow an inductive approach and to understand and engage with art in a more satisfying and comprehensive way.
Taking this approach also presents rich opportunities for theological engagement with the arts, a topic we will explore in an upcoming post.