David and Art - "Ambiguity"

Aug 12, 2019

Most of us aren't very comfortable with a lot of ambiguity, but it's a key element in great art. 

When I walk into the classroom to teach history, I don't set out to tear down people like Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln. What I do, however, is tell a very human story full of complexity and ambiguity, which inevitably begins to - if not exactly contradict - at least complicate the more simple stories so many of us heard when we were younger. 

Ambiguity is, in general, an unwelcoming thing. We like things to be clear. We like things to be, as we say, straighforward - we don't particularly like having to do the work of figuring out what something means, whether something is good or bad. We like our heroes to be clear, we like our villians to be clear and we like public policy to be clear. We like things that are self-explanatory. One of the problems of our contemporary discourse is that we say things are self-explanatory when they're really not and we don't stick around to hear the explanation. 

But life is full of ambiguity. Most of us know that as adults, but that doesn't mean we like it. In general, I'd venture that we seek to have as little of it in our lives as possible. But life is not like that. And good art is not like that either. Great art traffics in ambiguity. 

What exactly is James Rosenquist getting at with paintings of canned spaghetti of all things, and by putting the picture of JFK next to an image that looks like it's taken from a box of Betty Crocker bake mix? Why does the woman in American Gothic look so troubled? Is the Mona Lisa smiling? These are not questions that can be definitively answered and they're not supposed to be - they are challenges to our brains as we engage with great art. 

Art shifts your perspective, says Linda Dougherty, curator of contemporary art at the North Carolina Museum of Art. She says, "I hope you come in with one assumption and leave with a different view on the world, on yourself, on another person, because this artist pushed you to think outside the box in the same way they do when they create something."

Sounds simple. But changing your view can often involve some pretty heavy-lifting. 

It is ambiguity that makes the space in which we can change our opinions. You will have noticed perhaps the things that are straightforward and unambiguous rarely challenge us to think. There are exceptions of course, but in the main, we need ambiguity to expand our point of view. That's why art does this so well. And that's why the best art demands what you think about it.