When something has been said through art (music, poetry, painting), it is sometimes tempting to try to explain it using prose. When we ask a poet to tell us what her poem meant, we are asking her to say it in a different way. These descriptions can often seem very cheap and incomplete, or even somewhat wrong. The original art said it in the best way that the artist or anyone knows how to say it. If we attempt to summarize it with prose, we risk cheapening the whole thing.

Is there an idiom to explain this?

"Gild the lily" is sort of in the right direction but not quite it.

When I ask a music composer to explain their work, I would say "Well, I don't want to ask you to [insert idiom], but what were you trying to say when you wrote this?"


11 Answers 11

  • dancing about architecture

You're not the first person to hit against this issue, and a (semi-)famous description for it is

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

It even has its own Wikipedia page.

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    @Joachim - Yeah, I noticed it too, and found it interesting. I didn't mention it as I have personally heard the architecture/dancing one a few times, but never the economics/singing one, so I guessed that that version is a bit more wide-spread currently. Doesn't mean the OP can't pick the one they prefer though.
    – JonathanZ
    Apr 13, 2023 at 15:55
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    @Joachim Or singing about chess youtube.com/watch?v=21QpsK7LRM4
    – Stef
    Apr 14, 2023 at 9:20
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    Don't take this the wrong way, but there is absolutely on reason, at all, for this to be up-voted more than any of the other answers on this page. It's admirable to mention this slightly-related not-very-common quote, but this is - absolutely - no closer to an "answer" than any of the other 20 slightly-related quotes mentioned on this page (and furthermore, this is very obscure, unlike a number of the other comments, which are far more widely used and no more or less relevant).
    – Fattie
    Apr 14, 2023 at 13:23
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    Don't worry, I'm not taking it the wrong way.
    – JonathanZ
    Apr 14, 2023 at 15:22
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    @Joachim - Yeah, I think "nailing" the impossibility makes it a fitting expression. Also, it's a vivid and dramatic image, and even though most people haven't heard it before, when they do hear it they easily get it, and usually enjoy it. Not gonna lie, it's probably getting some upvotes for being a fun answer to Hot Network Question.
    – JonathanZ
    Apr 14, 2023 at 18:33

E.B. White once said, “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.” The act of dissecting a piece of art or comedy or other culture already calls to mind the notion of picking apart something that is generally experienced as a whole, and can also allude to this quote with the implication that doing so will destroy it and actually make it incapable of being experienced as intended.

You could say "I don't want to ask you to dissect your work, but what were you trying to say when you wrote this?", or more directly allude to the quote by saying "I don't want to ask you to 'dissect the frog', but what were you trying to say when you wrote this?"

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    I disagree with the similarity between art and jokes in this regard. Explaining a joke almost-always makes it impossible to laugh at the joke. On the contrary, explaining art can make it possible for the viewer to enjoy the art even more. However, the OP's concern, as I understand it, is that the artist might do a better job with their actual piece of art than with their explanation of it, so any explanation of the art would only be a "bad summary" of the art and would fail to do it justice.
    – Stef
    Apr 14, 2023 at 9:23
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    @Stef I agree that generally jokes hold up worse to scrutiny than art does. But I'll note there are many famous artists like Jasper Johns who refuse to offer interpretations of their own works because those works are not intended to be interpreted under the artist's direction. An explanation may allow deeper insight into some works of art, but some artists find it would only detract from the experience. Johns once joked that his favorite book about his work was written in Japanese; it was his favorite because he could not understand it. May 17, 2023 at 19:57

The explanation might not do justice to the original work.


to treat someone or something in a way that is fair and shows their or its true qualities:

"This postcard doesn't do justice to the wonderful scenery."

Often this idiom takes the [EDIT: indirect; I mistakenly said direct] object: ""Well, I know an explanation in prose might not do it justice, but what were you trying to say when you wrote this [poem | song]?"


I think that what you are looking for would be something like:

They say that a "picture is worth a thousand words" but in this case a thousand words fails to convey all of the majesty and nuance that the artist incorporates.

Or possibly:

In this case the medium used may be the only way that this could be expressed.

The shortest way to say this that I can think of would be:

Impossible to dissect

  • 1
    You are wise to mention the common phrase, "a picture is worth a thousand words". Some of the other phrases and maxims mentioned on this page, are really just obscure quotes, and not "in general use".
    – Fattie
    Apr 14, 2023 at 13:20
  • "Lost in translation"

"Well, I don't want to ask you to lose too much in translation, but what were you trying to say when you wrote this?"

This is more normally used for translation between natural languages rather than media, but it expresses the loss of nuance and artistic value.


Not an answer, but relevant.

From Archibald MacLeish:

A poem should not mean
But be.

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    – Community Bot
    Apr 13, 2023 at 15:05

There are many quotes addressing the contrast between especially poetry, and prose. One by Paul Rand seems less than pithy, but uses the poetry-prose divide as an example, essentially addressing all [more] creative expression:

  • To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit: it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse. To design is to transform prose into poetry.

[Paul Rand; BrainyQuote]

Far more short and sweet:

  • Prose talks and poetry sings.

[Franz Grillparzer; BrainyQuote]

From a more famous author:

  • One merit of poetry few persons will deny: it says more and in fewer words than prose.

[Voltaire; A Philosophical Dictionary; 1764; LibQuotes]

But I like

  • The writer of prose can only step aside when the poet passes.

W. Somerset Maugham; AllAuthor


More general quotes include:

  • I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way – things I had no words for.

[Georgia O'Keeffe; BrainyQuote]

  • Art! Who comprehends her? With whom can one consult concerning this great goddess?

[Ludwig van Beethoven; BrainyQuote]

  • This does not seem to fit the example, which is "Well, I don't want to ask you to [insert idiom], but what were you trying to say when you wrote this?"
    – Greybeard
    Apr 13, 2023 at 10:44
  • The example is given as an example. It is not a fixed template. These answers answer the title question. As for the requested idiom, (a) the quotes are well attested and (b) metaphorical usage occurs in arguably all the examples ('illuminates' / ... 'sings' / 'says' / goddess). If the 'fill the gap' requirement is binding, the question is arguably a duplicate of How to express a push for simplicity when explaining complex topics. 'Throw out the baby with ... Apr 13, 2023 at 11:08
  • the bathwater' is ballpark but fits. Apr 13, 2023 at 11:10
  • I have no idea why this is downvoted.
    – Fattie
    Apr 14, 2023 at 13:21

Kind of comment-ish, but maybe germane. Mark Twain said this regarding analysis of Huck Finn:

"PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."

A lot of English teachers have put their heads on the block, here. [I had to do the standard 11th grade essay analyzing some themes about fathers or slavery or whatever. But I actually got away in 12th grade (first required book report for AP English, easy since everyone had it), with summarizing it as a boy's adventure tale. How I first read it in elementary school anyhow!]

  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Apr 14, 2023 at 4:39
  • An excellent answer, just as valid as the others here. All the answers here are merely "mentions of relevant quotes or writings".
    – Fattie
    Apr 14, 2023 at 13:21

The simple answer to your question

"Is there an idiom [regarding the ineffability of art, the difficulty or impossibility of explaining the real nature of an artwork] ?"

The simple answer is


Idiom has an actual meaning (check dictionary). You should note that you would be severely misguided if you considered one of the (many valuable and astute) quotes mentioned in this QA, as anything like an answer.

Be aware that on SWRs, it's completely normal and commonplace on this site that the correct and only answer is


A particular danger is that non-native speakers reading here, can be misguided by "hopeful" answers on SWRs where in fact the answer is "No".

One word that may help is "experiential". If you assert that Bladerunner is experiential, or that standing in front of Flammable by Basquiat is experiential, or that Dancing Queen is experiential, you're essentially asserting that concept: that it is ineffable, and only the experience is meaningful, you can't use words (ie, it is ineffable).

However, exactly as JonathonZ points out below, "experiential" is a bit obscure / specialist / arty-farty.

In short:

"it must be experienced" or

"the experience can't be put in to words"

are the sort of constructions that are what you are getting at.

But please be aware they are exactly not idioms.

An idiom is a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g., rain cats and dogs, see the light).

A phrase like "it must be experienced" or "I am walking" or "that's a house" are not idioms, they are phrases.

OP is asking for an idiom (like "raining cats and dogs"), and there is no idiom. So various folks have helpfully supplied simply "sentences that may explain the issue in question" (as I have). But it's really important to realize those aren't "idioms", they're just the usual (often extremely confusing) "there's no idiom but here's a suggestion / invention / alternate discussion by me" material seen ubiquitously on this site in reply to swrs !

  • 1
    "Experiential" is a great word to bring up here - I'd never dug deeply into its definition before. But if we're worrying about what ideas non-native speakers might come away with, I think they're more likely to find understanding with the architecture/dancing or the dissected frog expressions - I don't think the subtleties of the meaning of "experiential" are common outside of art criticism circles.
    – JonathanZ
    Apr 14, 2023 at 18:39
  • This wasn't a single word request. An idiom is a group of words. I looked it up in the dictionary as you advised.
    – Lyndon
    May 17, 2023 at 2:23
  • @Lyndon - sure, sorry, on this site the acronym "swr" is often used (well, idiomatically) to mean any of the very many "request for ..." questions. In all events i have even further clarified my answer.
    – Fattie
    May 17, 2023 at 11:03
  • I think one might say that particular idioms or idiomatic expressions may be applied to some situation, but that they do not in and of themselves embody it. Wouldn't you agree> [+1 for those two straight-out nos]
    – Lambie
    May 17, 2023 at 15:56


  • understand wrongly and translate wrongly (wordreference.com)
  • Yes, but not an idiom.
    – Lambie
    May 17, 2023 at 15:57

I am not sure what Exactly you are looking for , but here are my thoughts on this :

Everything other than the Original is a "Poor Imitation".
[[ alternatives : knockoff , mock-up , shadow , rip-off , faux , Substandard Derivative ]]

The Original is the "real mccoy".
[[ alternatives : Archetype , Primary , Standard , Paragon , Classic , genuine ]]

Explaining what a Piece of Art means is generally "Deconstructing".
[[ alternatives : Interpret , Explicate , Demystify , Elucidate , Adumbrate , Clarify ]]

Making somebody to make cheap copies ( forcing them to cheapen their work ) may be considered Degrading/Debasing/Devaluing/Demeaning/Corrupting/Spoiling their work , .

With that , I think , we can fill in the blanks like this :

"Well, I don't want you to Spoil/Corrupt/Degrade/reinterpret/mock-up/rip-off your latest Classic ,
but what were you trying to say when you wrote this?"

We can alternatively be more Direct :

"Without Degrading/Corrupting/mocking your latest Classic ,
Can you Demystify/Elucidate/Adumbrate it to a non-connoisseur audience?"

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