A famous example of ambiguity in art is Leonardo Da Vinci’s portrait of Mona Lisa. Da Vinci used a technique called sfumato to blur the edges of the subject’s eyes and corners of her mouth to create an effect which leaves that enigmatic smile open to interpretation: is she blissful or melancholy or smugly mocking us? That is ambiguity.
The world of business is a world of certainty. Numbers, measurement and exactitude form the Holy Trinity of commerce.
But what of our business, the business of brand ideas and media communications, which despite what the scientists in our midst will tell you, is largely, chiefly, irrevocably an art?
Of course, our art is applied in the service of business, to be sure. But all great art uses a fundamental quality to create intrigue, the very thing that piques our interest, holds our attention and compels us to find out more: that quality is called ambiguity. This is as true in a good advertisement as it is in good cinema, painting, literature or poetry.
Ambiguity is what allows art to be interpreted in more than one way; it allows for the consumer to bring multiple perceptions to the experience. It is what creates enough mystery to pull us in and to stay with the piece. Ambiguity is, in effect, the antithesis of the certainty of science, even though there is an entire strain of the most precise science – mathematics – devoted to explaining ambiguity in a rational way.
Ambiguity is not something that can be quantified or measured. That’s a very scary thing for business people. The thing that makes a lot of art interesting flies in the face of the rigor that makes business science. Therein lies the rub between the age-old and uneasy alliance between these strange bedfellows of artists and number-crunchers.
This is no reason to despair. The left and right brainers of business need each other and there are plenty of examples of us working in harmony to drive significant results in the marketplace.
In the Media Arts ambiguity is often what gets the sales message noticed. If a brand’s message is not noticed everything else is lost.
Here’s the thing: ambiguity is no excuse for vagueness. They are not the same. All communications in the Media Arts need to be simple and clear, and it is our responsibility as communicators to ensure that our content is understood by whoever is consuming or interacting with it.
Ambiguity, and its accessories of metaphor, trompe l’oeil, irony, double entendre, black humour and the like, is a tool artists use to get something noticed and paid attention to.
You can take that to the bank.