For instance the image of the cross is a symbol which holds a meaning for many of us, generally Christianity and hopefully Christ's death and Resurrection. But we would interpret what an artist meant when they used the symbol of a cross differently depending on the context in which they used it in.
For example if you saw a picture where a man was clinging to a cross, floating in a flood of water, we might likely draw a positive meaning of a man being saved by the cross. However if we saw a picture of a man trapped underneath a cross we would might draw the conclusion that the artist was making a statement about the burden of Christianity, trapping a helpless individual. Context is used to understand a symbol.
These examples are relatively straight forward as the context is overtly explicit in its direction, pushing to the forefront what is meant by the artist. However not all art conveys a message, a story or provides a context to understand what is meant.
Over the past year I've heard the artist Son Lux being played on the radio, although clearly in the popular music arena his songs seem to contrast with many popular music tracks, I wondered why this might be. I didn't mind most of his lyrics, some of his earlier songs from his first album sound as if they have a biblical inspiration such as the lyrics of his song Weapons; "Put down all your weapons and let me in through your open wounds."
In an article published in The Guardian the Composer Nico Muhly suggests that this could be from Isaiah 53 verse 5 or Thomas after the Resurrection, John 20 verses 24-35. Although there are lyrics that seem quite biblical in origin, with words normally associated with religious themes, there is very little context to choose what is really meant by these words.
So although the symbols are present without a provided context their meaning remains ambiguous. I quite enjoy the complexity created by the layered meanings and multiple angles, I think this is part of why I liked his music, it allowed me to reflect on themes based on my life and my perspectives.
However not everyone sees it the same way. Many reviews of Son Lux's albums find the ambiguous lyrics, without any context or story a major weakness in his work. As for Son Lux, in an interview for Wunderkammer Magazine in 2009, he stated that he wanted to write lyrics that people could relate their own stories, their own lives to. He didn't feel he had enough life experience to say anything meaningful.
On the one hand we can see artists pushing a message, an agenda but then we have other artist whose aim to bring about reflection on elements of our own lives.
I think Christian artists can sometimes struggle to find a healthy balance between these two positions. The culture in many churches appears to be an emphasis on the context, so as to clearly communicate the meaning.
But perhaps we are overlooking the benefits of creating art that encourages reflection. The Lord is all powerful, will he not stir the hearts of those he has called?
Sam Gillespie is a graduate Composition student and a computer programmer doing his Honours year based in Sydney. Sam has composed a number of works.
Sam Gillespie's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sam-gillespie.html