I recently watched the movie I’m Thinking of Ending Things (ITOEF) - I understood none of it. I mean, it was beautiful, but I was unable to come up with any plausible interpretation of what was happening and I found the ones I read on the internet really non-obvious.

This annoyed me: what’s the point of hiding the meaning so deep? If the director really wants to make an important point just make it more obvious! But of course, there are reasons to hide the meaning. 

Meaning-hiding is aesthetically pleasing

Note that although I didn’t understand the movie, I still found it beautiful. Yes, it was well directed and the acting was good. But I think part of my enjoyment was caused by the fact that I knew that there was some meaning to it all, although I couldn’t grasp it - the hidden meaning made the work of art more beautiful.

Another example. Gernica by Picasso seems to be well regarded in the art world. It is an anti-war painting, a “response to the bombing of Guernica […] by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy”. Without this context, the painting has a low level of meaningness, but it is still beautiful. I say part of this beauty comes from the fact that we suspect there’s some meaning behind it. The moment we learn about the history behind the painting, we understand the hidden meaning and it somehow becomes even more beautiful. 

To illustrate the point in the other direction, imagine if Picasso had wrote in the painting “war is terrible”. I feel that that directness would lower the artistic value of the painting, would make it uglier somehow, not because of the text per se, but because of the too obvious meaning.

Jumping to the TV medium.  Sitcom episodes sometimes contain life-lessons - for example, a character spends the episode comically worrying about some small thing in her life but in the end someone tells her that she should appreciate what she has and not care about such trifles. Makes sense. But it lacks the meaningness
that shows like Atlanta have, where the meaning is hidden in a not-too-deep layer of metaphor, and the episodes can be as short and fun as those of a sitcom. I find episodes of the later type of shows much more beautiful.

So, it seems that hiding the meaning of a work of art makes it more beautiful, even if one doesn’t understand the meaning. I would say that even if it has no meaning, just the appearance of meaning makes it more beautiful. 

Why does this happen?

(Some) Humans seem to naturally find enjoyable things that have some kind of potential. A trail you never hiked on. A dish you never tasted. A relationship you never experienced. A birthday gift. We are natural explorers. Maybe we see works of arts with non-obvious meaning as one of these things?

A more cynical option is that by enjoying a mysterious work of art we are signaling our sophisticatedness. In western society, people who like complex art are seen as smart and cultured. Our elephant in the brain notices this and makes us enjoy hidden meanings so that we gain status around our peers. 

Meaning-hiding as a better way to transmit ideas

While writing this essay, I stumbled upon this:

“Words of wisdom” go into one ear and out the other, and I suppose this is a reason why a novel, a painting or a song can be more effective than a philosophical tract. Successful idea-driven art doesn’t simply supply us with ideas to use whenever we want to (which isn’t necessarily when we ought to), it burns them into our minds through repetition, elaboration and strong emotion. That way they won’t fade away like fragments of the last dream before you wake up and we won’t have the option to not use them.

John Nerst, Everything Studies

I’ll just add to it that if you hide the meaning and make the reader/viewer/listener fight for it, the idea will become even more imprinted in her mind. 

But how deep should the artist hide the meaning? Too much and not many people will get the meaning. Not enough and the meaning will look like a platitude. For me, the meaning of ITOEF was too hidden. But I guess that for a number of people, it was ideal. Anyway, I wouldn’t worry too much about this. There’s so much variety of works of art and so much neurodiversity that there is probably something for everyone.