Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Emperor Has No Clothes.

I haven't had a good rant in a while, but this ones been building up. It's time to let it out before I cause myself some permanent neurological damage.

One of my favorite stories growing up was "The Emperor's New Suit" by Hans Christian Andersen. For those who may be unfamiliar with it, it's the tale of an Emperor who is taken in by a pack of grifters because he is afraid to say that he doesn't see something that they tell him he is supposed to see. It takes the innocence and honesty of a small child to finally set things right because he can tell just by looking that the Emperor he"has nothing on at all.”

Art is for everyone. It's for all of mankind, not just the perceived intellectual elite. Yes, art is supposed to make you think, but it's supposed to make you think about something. It's not supposed to make you think about what the heck you are supposed to be thinking about. Telling people that you "don't want to dumb down" your work for the public is a total cop out.

If you are a poet, and you have something to say, you need to figure out a way to say it so that people understand. It doesn't matter how smart you think you are. If you get up in a room full of people and pour out your heart to them, hoping to get them to understand how you feel, if you're speaking in Greenlandic Norse, and no one in the room understands Greenlandic Norse (since the last known speaker of it died in the late 15th or early 16th century), you are wasting your time. This elitist attitude of "If they don't understand, that's their problem" is a fallacy. If they don't understand what you are saying, it's your problem. While work that the public may not appreciate can be cathartic to the artist solely by its creation, it's value to an unaccepting world is nil.


SMC said...

Scott- when an artist creates work that is following some internal thread of thought I call it too "personal." It has merit and meaning to the artist only and not to a broader audience. It is fine to create it but it should be slipped into a box and referenced when needed, or tacked to a wall to serve as inspiration. I see these pieces frequently, I sometimes even get them, but I know that they are unsaleable because they won't speak to anyone else's experience - aesthetic or otherwise.
McGowan Fine Art

Larry Graykin said...

Nope. I disagree... with both Scott and Sarah.

When you read poets like James Tate, Russell Edson, or Charles Simic, it's a different experience that Frost or Longfellow. The beautiful abstractions in their words undoubtedly have that "thread" of deep meaning for them, but a reader can only create his or her own meaning, perhaps enjoying some of the word combinations along the way. But the work of appreciation is left for the audience, and yes, it does require work. Too "personal"? Not at all: Many of these poems are intensely personal, but that's part of the appeal. They are abstracted glimpses into the creator's psyche. Listen to Eno's "The Paw-Paw Negro Blowtorch" and tell me its not all that different from listening to Greenlandic Norse. And yet, there is thought-provoking beauty in the lyric. (I suspect listening to compelling recitation of a Greenlandic Norse poem could be a powerful experience, too.)

If one does not accept the audience's role as one of meaning-maker, one discounts the underlying appeal of art: As the recipient, I have an important--nay, critical--role in making the piece come to life. Otherwise, it's just an artifact.

The differing interpretations individuals have of art is evidence of this. I may see Piet Mondrian's images as representative of city life; another may see them as statements on color and balance; still another may think of them as Freudian expressions of internal struggle. Mondrian himself wrote, "...I want to come as close as possible to the truth and abstract everything from that, until I reach the foundation (still just an external foundation!) of things..."

There's nothing wrong with making an audience work. Scott, in the Khronikos show, you expect the audience to see a story between the disparate images hung. What if they do, but naively start at what you think is the "middle" of the narrative, and create a different story? Or what if they think of the pieces as wholly unrelated, or if they think in non-linear terms?

One of my favorite movies is Citizen Kane, in part because there are multiple layers of meaning, many creative touches, powerful performances, etc. But it's not a film I watch for "fun." If it were dumbed-down, it may end up being akin to a Adam Sandler film. Then it'd make a boatload of money, and I'd likely see no merit in it. Moreover, Welles' notion of what the audience should understand from it may be radically different from what people take from it. Superficially, at least his clear motive was to criticize William Randolph Hearst...but few viewers nowadays would know who that was, let alone make the connection.

There's a book called In Defense of Elitism. I didn't agree with all of its assertions--a democratic mode has its own strong attributes--but sometimes it's nice for deep thinking people to prod each other to do deep thinking. And in doing that, those people may serve as models for the part of the population who has not yet discovered the joys of thinking hard.

Justine Graykin said...

I suppose I fall somewhere in between these positions. I feel a certain frustration with artists who, one might say, are too deep for their own good. If there's no "hook", visually or verbally, that gets my interest, I'm going to move on. But once initially attracted to a piece, I'm delighted if I discover deeper layers, and more rewards if I put some work into it. (By the way, it doesn't matter if the artist knows those deeper layers are there or not. I firmly believe that a great deal of creativity is unconscious; you may intend one thing, but suddenly discover you've been doing five others as well without realizing it. And whether the meaning is really "there" or simply a construct of the artist or audience, is another whole evening's worth of debate.)

The artist can be as elitist, obtuse and pretentious as he wants, and revel in his rarified critical acclaim. But it must be a damned lonely place. My greatest satisfaction is in connecting with a reader who enjoys the work as much as I enjoyed writing it. It's called being accessible, and you don't need to "dumb down" to do it; just be a bit more skillful.

Lee Ann said...

What a wonderful discussion! I think Sarah has hit the nail on the head, though. These works that are produced in the proverbial "Greenland Norse" have value, they serve a purpose, but to suggest that they should be given the same exposure as work touching on more common experience (perhaps 'shared experience' is a better term) is to take elitism to it's dark side. That's where we nurture exclusionism, which serves no one, least of all the artist.

I agree that the audience must 'work' toward understanding - that completes the totality of the creative experience. But that struggle by the audience for understanding will ALWAYS happen with every artwork - regardless of the level of meaning the artist believes he has imbued it with. It it 'matrixing' - your brain struggling to find meaning within a structure that did not originate from within.

That doesn't mean that I think anyone need pander to the lowest common denominator. Just that to produce something obtuse and obscure requires an artist to understand that it is produced for their own artistic good, and not necessarily because they are contributing to a larger movement.

Scott Bulger Photography said...

I appreciate all of the insightful comments so far, and I appreciate the discussion. When I go off the deep end like this, I often tend to oversimplify for purposes of illustration. Please allow me to elaborate. An artists "job" is to communicate. If no one understands you, you aren't a good communicator.

I don't feel that all art needs to be conventionally aesthetically beautiful. I think that there is certainly a place for work that explores darker, less beautiful themes, and those can be beautiful in their own way. There is absolutely a place for personal work that no has to understand or appreciate but the maker, but when you insinuate that viewers "don't get it" because they aren't as smart as you does a disservice to you as an artist and adds another layer of elitist snobism that works to the detriment of art as a whole.

Larry, words are your bailiwick, so my poetry example,(and it was only an abstract example)struck a nerve with you and this is going to be an uphill battle for me. If you are speaking in a language that your listeners don't understand, you better do an amazing job with the cadence and the inflection and the emotion that the sounds coming from your mouth make and turn it into something more, almost music. While Tate's "The Lost Pilot" is an intensely personal work, it is a collections of words that most should understand, and the raw emotion and angst involved in its writing make it appreciable to more than just the writer. The fact that you and I both understand and appreciate it, certainly elevates it out of the argument that no one would understand it. I've never spoken with Mr. Tate personally, I believe that he strings his words together in a way that, while deeply personal, has meaning to others that read it as well.

With regards to my own work, I strive to make each image appreciable on it's own, and them hope that I do a good enough job to get people to recognize the relationship between images and then maybe they can put the whole puzzle together. While each image is it's own piece of art, each image is also a piece of a larger piece of art (the entire installation). But I would never insinuate that the viewers weren't smart enough to understand it, I would take that burden on to myself to try to make it easier for the viewer to put the pieces together.

The true beauty of Citizen Kane, is that even if you have no ide who Hearst is, and you never make the connection of the pointed criticism, you can still appreciate the movie on it's own as a great story and a beautifully made film. The key in my mind is to make art that many can appreciate on its face, and then maybe have some deeper layers to provoke thought for viewers that wish to go that direction. There is nothing wrong with encouraging thought and provoking discussion, that is how we all learn and grow, and that, after all, is the end goal.

Christopher Volpe said...

Art is nothing without an audience. Larry, you are dead wrong about the poetry of Simic, Tate, Edson (and why not throw in WS Merwin and John Ashbery too). Yes their poetry comes from a deep place of non-discursive, associative thought (something akin to the logic of dreams if one wished to call it that), but as Simic has said, it has to "make sense" as a work of art )which implies a reader/audience - at least on its own terms. In other words, the work has to be internal coherent, consistent with its own laws, however alien or fantastic those laws are - so, the surrealist effectively puts an egg in the cage, not a coffee mug or a dumptruck. All this implies audience, and believe me, these poets' works are emphatically NOT "personal."

In the 1990s I attended poetry workshops with Simic where he routinely criticized graduate students' poems for being too esoteric and not making sense to the reader.

We've gotten complacent about art that doesn't make sense. Ever since modernism, we're too ready to cop out by saying, "Oh, art means something different to everybody anyway," which really means we're just not going to think about difficult things like value, what constitutes greatness or even "good-ness" in art, etc.