Ambiguity in Art

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I’ve just come back from a wonderful orchestra concert, and I’m still feeling that rush of excitement and emotional sharpness that comes from listening to incredible music – Beethoven’s Eroica, specifically. It is truly such an absolutely astounding piece. I am completely floored each time I hear it. What is it about it that makes it so unforgettable? Yes, it was revolutionary, ahead of its time – its length practically unprecedented in past symphonies, its usage of themes and motifs masterful. But what lifts it from a technical masterpiece to an timeless one is the breathtaking gamut of emotions it runs through. It dances, shrieks, and parades through a kaleidoscope of moods and characters. You barely have time to sink yourself into each one before it is up and running again, twisting the musical ideas to fit the profound emotional statements only Beethoven knew how to craft – at once agonizingly personal and yet grandly universal.

Therein lies the magic. Yes, we can argue about the inspiration for the piece, the implied storyline, the mannerisms of the era – but can we really pinpoint the specific emotions, the impassioned exclamations that make up its fabric? For example, the first movement. What do those stabbing opening chords mean? Are they meant to be grand, like trumpet calls? Aggressive? Sarcastic, even? What about the lyric melody that follows? Is it romantic, tender, sweeping, lyrical, bittersweet, hopeful? All of these adjectives apply – you guess as to Beethoven’s intention is as good as mine. And he was almost certainly aiming for this ambiguity, deliberately.

Music is meant to go beyond what mere words can describe. In constructing such complex, often ambiguous emotions, it becomes in fact profoundly human. We start to recognize our emotions in works such as these, because they too are complex, messy, and often hard to untangle. This deliberate ambiguity in art is often what lends it its greatness – its timelessness. Centuries later, we are still unraveling the Gordian knot of feelings and declarations wound tightly between the phrases of a composer’s piece. We have a sense of belonging, of being understood, that is unparalleled. We each find a voice of our own in the expansive and multi-hued voice of the composer.

This ambiguity, although perhaps unrivaled in its quality when found in music, is present in other art forms as well. We like messy, unpredictable characters in literature (and films). For example, in The Sun Also Rises (by Hemingway), the character of Jake Barnes remains fascinating to this day. His love affair with scandalous divorcee Lady Brett Ashley seems straightforward, but his twistedly conflicted emotions are like a puzzle. Why does he continue to purposely wound himself by introducing her to other potential suitors, even as he literally cries over her? So much of what he does makes no sense, at least not in a logical way – but in a human, vague, way, it makes perfect sense. We identify with his oscillations, his agony, his roundabout self-harm. It defies logic but it resonates with feeling we’ve all had, albeit in different ways. In its ambiguity, readers find a sense of personal truth – of poignant familiarity. They see what they want to see in his character, whatever it is they most resonate with. This is what F. Scott Fitzgerald meant in his now-famous quote, “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” This sense of belonging needs the space left by words unsaid, phrases left implied in the silence, to breathe.

I think that today, this precious and crucial ambiguity in expression is somewhat in peril. Art is increasingly explicit, increasingly declamatory. For example, while art and politics have always been inextricably linked in a way that is essential to progress and civilization, nowadays it has taken an almost instructive approach – art lectures instead of channeling the viewer/listener/reader’s personal truth. Or take pop songs, for example. Melody lines have almost completely lost emotional ambiguity. Sad songs are sad. Dance songs are upbeat. There is no in-between. Unlike a Schubert lieder that has layer upon layer of unusual harmonies that subtly underline (or sometimes undermine) the words, providing a scintillating layer of mystery that each listener must unravel themselves, a pop song has no intrigue. When Bieber sings, “It is too late now to say sorry? Cause I’m missing more than just your body,” there is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind what the song is about. The words spell it out, the beat dully underlines it. There is no complexity, nothing personal evoked. This isn’t to say all contemporary popular music does this. For those of you who have been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know I’m obsessed with Lorde. What I like about her music is the emotional uncertainty in a lot of her songs’ harmonies, as well as the subtle strangeness of her lyrics. You get a sense that you know, as a whole, what she’s talking about, but when it comes to specifics each listener must supply their own ideas. (“All of the things we’re taking, ’cause we are young and we’re ashamed, send us to perfect places, all of our heroes fading, now I can’t stand to be alone.”)

This ambiguity is essential to art, at least art that aspires to be timeless. A riddle with no concrete solution, it transforms itself into an answer each time it is experienced. It is as if the art transforms itself by transforming the one who experiences it. That is magical. There is absolutely nothing like it. To each viewer/listener/reader, its meaning shifts into what is most poignant to them. Therein lies the piercing grandeur of the Eroica, and all works of art like it – in its deeply personal form of expression, it still leaves enough space and complexity to be interpreted differently by all. To each listener it evokes something difficult to pinpoint yet impossible to forget. It expresses the universal by letting each express the personal. Is there any loftier, more heart-rending, and more truthful form of art than that?

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3 thoughts on “Ambiguity in Art

  1. A satisfyingly thought-provoking take, despite of (or because of) the very personal nature of your analysis. Also, you make a great point by adding the unexpected aspect of ambiguity to the list of what makes art timeless and relevant.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dances , shrieks and parades yes that is often typical Beethoven occasionally he is serene but not for long. All of his symphonies are masterpieces and the fifth has been labelled the finest symphony ever composed. I noted your word timeless ; it is one of the tests of art will it last and pass the test of time.
    What I’m not too sure about was whether Beethoven considered all this stuff we discuss , I suspect he just poured it out uncontrollably.
    ‘ So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
    So long lives this , and this gives life to thee.’

    Liked by 1 person

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