VVP: Art 434 & Engl. 410

Website for Vision Voice and Practice: An Interdisciplinary Course in Art and Creative Writing

Monday, April 3, 2017

"Personal Jesus" & Personal Interpretation

Last week, our student Laura Webster played, for our class song-of-the-day, Johnny Cash's version of "Personal Jesus," a song originally recorded by Depeche Mode. She noted how the song, originally using the figure of a "personal" Jesus as a metaphor for the shallow, consumer-driven, and individualistic nature of religion, was reinterpreted by Cash, who really was religious, as an invitation to call on Jesus.

A number of interesting thoughts came of this, particularly regarding how the same text can be interpreted in radically different, and equally plausible, ways. I thought of how civil rights leaders reinterpreted the Declaration of Independence's statement that "all men are created equal" to mean not merely "all white male protestants who own property," but all people. I thought about how our knowledge of a person's biography can affect our understanding of the text they speak (or sing). I thought of the way other works in an artist's corpus helps us interpret the work before us--how, for example, the Depeche Mode song "Blasphemous Rumours" makes it hard to see "Personal Jesus" as a sincere song of devotion, when they sing it, but how Johnny Cash's history in Gospel music makes it easier to hear the song's devotional potential. (Beyond all this: It's simply a cool song and was a nice way to start the class.)

This comes after a recent course assignment where students read a chapter from Terry Barrett's Criticizing Photographs, which gives students a number of lenses--psychoanalytic, Marxist, feminist, archetypal, and others--through which to regard various images. One of the passages we looked at reads, "When one is acting as a critic, to interpret a photograph [or, for that matter, something else, like a song] is to tell someone else [like, say, a class full of peers], in speech or in writing, what one understands about [it], and especially what one thinks [it] is about."

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