Outside the box
Art, like a Christmas gift, is too often all about the "thing" at the center—the "conclusion" beneath all the layers. Maybe the wrapping is more central than we think?
Growing up as a preacher's son in St. Bernard Parish, just outside of New Orleans, I spent many hours with my brother playing and exploring at my father's church. It was a small church, and it is filled with memories for me—particularly the season of Advent. I find it easy to recall the wonderful smells, the sounds and the traditions during that exciting season in church life. Yet my most specific Advent memory was one of perennial disappointment.
The church Christmas tree was adorned with wonderful, gaudy Styrofoam ornaments created by the members of the congregation, all covered in gold glitter and gleaming white. Under the tree laid a pile of Christmas presents, and I remember them clearly, because they were completely empty. I don't think a year went by without my testing one of those airy, insubstantial parcels and giving it a shake. Perhaps I was hoping that something would change, but they were always empty, and I was always chagrined.
Christmas gifts, in my young mind, worked according to a particular logic: You picked up the appealingly adorned object, you recklessly and effortlessly peeled away the layers of wrapping and packaging, and you possessed the object of desire at its center. At that age a satisfying outcome for me was a new X-Wing fighter, and a dissatisfying one was any article of clothing. The bottom line was that, satisfied or not, Christmas packages were all about that thing at the center; the point at which I would stop; a conclusion.
It is not uncommon to think of works of art in the same way. A prevailing assumption is that at the unseen center of every work of art there is some discrete idea or immovable notion that the artist desires the viewer to grasp. According to this way of thinking, the work itself is a subordinate vehicle, or a means by which this principle idea is communicated. The viewer's relationship to the work of art is that of peeling back the layers of images and symbols in order to decipher exactly what the work of art is "about." I know, because I get asked the question all the time regarding my own art.
What I failed to understand as a boy, however, was that those gifts under the tree in my church were operating according to an entirely different logic than I assumed and even preferred at that age. They were not intended to envelop some static object or idea, but to serve as a starting point. By enlisting my contemplative participation, they were intended to point me toward a broad, dynamic world of imaginative possibilities. They contained no instant pay-off. They wanted me to look, and wonder, and think. They wanted me, in the words of artist Ed Ruscha, to say, "Huh? Wow!" In my limited understanding of what these objects were, however, all I was able to muster was "Wow! Huh?"
We should always consider works of art with this in mind. Rather than corral or restrain the viewer's experience of reality, good art works by suggestion, by offering different vantage points for interpreting the world in which we live. The apostle Paul understood this when he encountered the altar Agnosto Theo. His eyes saw a strange pagan altar (Huh?), yet his imagination recognized an opening (Wow!), and he seized it (like any good art critic would), utilizing the conceptual elbowroom that was granted to him by the maker of that particular artifact.
Those objects under the church tree when I was a boy were to function as a lens does—they were something through which to see, to assist in shaping what I saw. I was to consider what a gift was, and perhaps re-evaluate my own ideas about them. I was being invited to consider, in a new and allusive way, the richness of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. I was invited to wonder about the way that a gift, like a work of art, always mediates a relationship between two parties. I missed this, because I misperceived their function, enamoured as I was with X-Wing Fighters. The presents under that tree didn't terminate at the easy satisfaction of a child's toy; they opened onto a World Without End.