No one has taught me more about considering and making art than “Mr. D.”

That’s Michael Demkowicz, who was my high school English teacher, and who remains a dear friend to this day.

Demkowicz is a photographer, and several of his prints hang on the walls of my home. But he has also influenced what I read, how I watch movies, and how I listen to music. And he was extraordinarily generous and observant in reading and responding to early drafts of my “memoir of dangerous moviegoing,” Through a Screen Darkly.

I’m making it an annual event to feature my favorite single article on art, an essay called “Mystery and Message” that Demkowicz contributed to my first arts publication, a short-lived periodical called The Crossing, which contained articles written to encourage and inform Christians who were striving to create art outside the arena of blatantly evangelical, agenda-driven “Christian art.”

It’s short. It’s wonderful. Take a few minutes and read it…

Mystery and Message

or What We Talk About When We Talk About Art

by Michael Demkowicz

Art is what happens when a person encounters mystery and feels compelled to make something of it.

Salt of the Earth - Salgado print
Sebastião Salgado print, featured in “The Salt of the Earth” by Wim Wenders


That something may come out in music, movement, words, clay, pigments, or — in my case — silver bromide. And that something is not exactly an expression of the mystery, though much may be expressed. It is not exactly an explanation, though many things may be explained. That something that is art may tell a great deal, but it is not precisely an accounting. It points, and it may even surround, but it never quite communicates. To some, the ambiguity and incompleteness—the “not exactly”, the “not precisely” — comprise art’s failure and frustration. To others, they are its wonder and delight. Art is what comes out of an encounter with mystery, providing a lasting record of that encounter.

Elbert Hubbard asserted, “Art is not a thing, it’s a way.” In my experience, most working artists would tend to agree; critics and commentators would disagree. They approach from different directions. Both opinions hold weight. To the extent that making art is an encounter and points others toward that encounter, it is a way. But the work of art itself must stand or fall as a thing on its own.

Museum Hours2
A moment from Jem Cohen’s film Museum Hours.

There is, then, much to talk about when we talk about art. I know — I have been in countless such discussions over many years. I used to be a teacher who made photographs. Now I’m a photographer who teaches. My life has required both doing and explaining how to do. These are very different matters.

Understanding such differences is crucial, both to the artist and to those interested in art. Failure to see these differences results in talking at cross purposes — even crossed swords. Perhaps a consideration of art as both a thing and a way will help us remember why we go to art, and why we stumble into unproductive conversations.

When we come to a finished work we face a challenge. We sense that there is meaning there somewhere, but the art itself doesn’t go out of its way to help us understand it. Archibald MacLeish said: “A poem should not mean / But be.”

Museum Hours 1
Mary Margaret O’Hara in Museum Hours

When people respond to a poem, a painting, a song, they are responding to the thing that is art. This is appropriate. The piece stands on its own, apart from any intent of its maker (conscious or otherwise). As they consider the piece, if they are thoughtful, they will begin to trace their reactions back through their experience of the piece to see if their “reading” has any basis. They pay close attention to the work and their encounter with it. If they are experienced in their critical analysis, they will compare aspects of the work with other pieces by this artist or with similar things by other artists. They will try to articulate their sense of the maker’s vision.

wolf_of_wall_street_ver3At some point, people may venture to compare the vision of the work with their own. Whatever their perspective — if they are Christians, Marxists, Feminists, or hold any religious or philosophical position — they will no doubt find aspects of the work to commend or attack. This may prove fruitful, as individuals test their understanding against the challenge of the work and others’ views — even against the challenge of others with a similar philosophy. Depending on individual temperaments, such exchanges will be stimulating, invigorating, and enriching; or, they will be frustrating, threatening, and angering. The play or song or film has contributed to everyone’s knowledge and experience — the audience is now included in the artist’s encounter.

But what happens when a person in the audience meets the work and immediately — even abruptly — announces an evaluation of it? (He found it uplifting. She approves of the message. He is offended by the language. She is upset by the frankness of the sexuality. It is too violent, ugly, loud, irreverent.) Whatever the merit of such comments, they carry little weight because they do not result from careful reflection on the work. They result in a superficial endorsement or dismissal. Indeed, there has hardly been an honest encounter with the work. Shallow reactions, no matter how sincere or well-meaning, create strain with anyone who does not already agree, and prevent worthwhile discussion or critique.

As Christians, we are perhaps likelier than some others to fall into this trap of earnest shallowness. Because we know Truth, we are aware that there are lies and error. “We must be vigilant!” An individual issuing the sorts of pronouncements described above might consider himself vigilant, a defender of the faith: “But God’s Word says…!” or “Truth mixed with error is error!” After all, if we were raised in church, we were brought up on preaching, and presented with a clear message. But art is not merely clever or slick preaching. The ambiguities presented in art are often jarring, even threatening. A mind unsettled by even honest fear about “clouding the message” may have difficulty seeing that art is much more a matter of exploration than exposition.

"Looking across lake toward mountains, "Evening, McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park," Montana., 1933 - 1942 - NARA - 519861" by Ansel Adams - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
“Looking across lake toward mountains, “Evening, McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park,” Montana., 1933 – 1942 – NARA – 519861″ by Ansel Adams – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.


Art takes us, as John Ciardi says of a poem, “through the moment of experience to the moment of insight.” Yet this moment of insight may be a while in coming. So a person inclined to hasty judgment in terms of theology or doctrine may reject much insight in the effort to repudiate what is truly objectionable. Such a person might dismiss Shakespeare’s portrayal of evil in Macbeth as endorsing or wallowing in evil; he or she might fail to see that a film or story or photograph may walk the line between being about immorality or evil and being immoral or evil itself. And, of course, most irony and satire would be lost on this person.

Such difficulties in talking about art are, of course, not confined to Christians. It is important to understand, however, that shallow or hasty reactions to art are really not talking about the art itself! Rather, they reveal more about ourselves—our beliefs, our tastes, our fears, our biases—than they tell us about the art. It can be difficult to remember that the “beauty” of an artistic encounter with evil or life’s deep questions lies in the truthfulness and clarity — even “rightness” — of the artist’s witness. Integrity, especially in matters of troubling and difficult reality, is not always immediately “beautiful.” We may have strong initial reactions, but we must be honest about the beliefs and biases we bring to a discussion, then respond carefully and thoughtfully to the work itself.

amadeusStill, even honest and thoughtful people discussing a work may face an additional challenge if the artist is present. The artist may have trouble relating to what the audience is saying. While the others are talking about a thing, the artist is remembering the process of getting there: the way. The results range from awkwardness to condescension to outrage to paralysis.

The impulse to art is intuitive, not analytical. The process of making art is taking experience on faith in much the same way that the audience encounters the finished work: “I have faith — though I could be mistaken — that there is something meaningful here, and I bring to bear everything I can to make sense of it.” Since self-consciousness of any sort is death to the creative effort (from doubts about talent to financial considerations to doctrinal concerns — the list is endless), artists learn to be wary of analysis and uncomfortable about explaining their work. Let us not forget that there are questions to which the answer cannot be given by direct assertion, only in the work itself. Similarly, there are actions and works which answer questions we have yet to pose. Some art, in fact, challenges us to ask the questions.

Timothy Spall is Mr. Turner
Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner.

An artist’s misguided attempt to explain his work can lead to paralyzing self-consciousness. Several times I have been stuck for long periods after interested people asked me intriguing questions about my photographs. Having talked too much about meaning, I have found myself unable to be still and wait for the mystery to make its way back into my work. I impose my formulas. The result is invariably contrived and stillborn. I’ve learned that talk about the work is not the work. I’ve learned to respond with an honest “I don’t know” when people ask me what something means or “Why did you do it that way?” Artists with less experience may not know how to graciously deflect well-intentioned but—to them—dangerously irrelevant questions. A thoughtful audience will seek more sensitive, less threatening ways to engage the artist about the work. Ultimately, both artist and audience must return to the wonder that brought them together in the first place.

A dancer in Wim Wenders’s film Pina.

Art, as both a thing and a way, reminds us — even compels us — to “be still and know.” In a real sense, the artist feels compelled to “make something of it.” The resulting drama or dance or picture or poem calls us — audience as well as artist — to know something. We may be enraptured by it or offended. We may be delighted or disturbed. Our initial reaction to it may be skewed by intellectual, spiritual, and emotional baggage we bring to our experience of it. It may take us days, weeks, or even years to come to terms with what the work stirs in us. It takes faith, patience, and humility to be still and know amid all of the ambiguity of life and art.

And the language of creativity, whether from maker or receiver, moves into the spiritual realm of metaphor: “It spoke to me.” “I was deeply moved.” “It clicked for me.” And finally, “I got it.”