Are our brains too small to understand modern art? That’s not my question. It was framed by Terry Teachout, a consistently interesting writer on culture for The Wall Street Journal.
Though I enjoyed his little speculative exercise, and though I feel much as he does about his examples selected from modern classical music and modernist literature, I think he was barking up the wrong tree. That isn’t just because it is often impossible to tell who really understands a work of art, and to what degree. What I’d like to know, instead, is how long — if ever — it’s going to take the average person to feel safe in liking what he and she does naturally and instinctively, caring nothing about lining up with either mass or expert taste.
This familiar complaint by a Simon Heffer in yesterday’s Telegraph has something to do with too many people’s fear of expressing — or acting on — their aesthetic preferences:
There was a dreadful phrase that one used to hear a lot 30 or 40 years ago, but which is now, fortunately, less common: “I know what I like.” The level of satisfaction with which it was uttered was matched only by the degree of contempt it used to excite in me. How did the speaker know? And what did it say about his or her determination to close off a no doubt underactive mind against any adventure, any new stimulus, any sense of curiosity?
While the particular form of arrogance he describes is intrinsically annoying, knowing what you like – even insisting that you do – is not necessarily the sign of a closed mind. Surely it can also be consistent with wide-ranging, possibly pathological, curiosity? A strong, visceral certainty about what one likes can be hard won – from years of exploration and adventuring.
I have been thinking about all that partly because I am still wondering about the subject of my last post. Could selling ‘fine’ art online liberate buyers to simply choose what they like, sparing them the embarrassment – or annoyance – of needing to talk about it to people who know more about it than they do? Or less?
So far, I have only had time to look at a small portion of the portfolio that Ana Margarida Johnson, one young artist who recently joined the conversation here, has put up for sale on her site (yes, with helpful price tags.) In keeping with my preference for saying as little as possible about art that I find attractive, I will only note that I seem to have been drawn to her picture titled Orange – in spite of (usually) loathing the colour – because (i) of the playful vibrance of its shapes, not just its palette; (ii) I once, long ago, enjoyed drawing and painting abstract, complex geometric constructions myself; (iii) the work of Wassily Kandinsky, which I loved in those years of messing around with paint, came to mind in my first glance at Ana’s creation (say, his Black and Violet); (v) it looks almost exactly like my conception of how human brains operate – not just in my childhood, but well into my twenties, when I continued to dismiss all scientific understanding of grey matter as hopelessly dull, by comparison.
And that reminds me …For reasons that mystify even me, a trailer for Brain Wave, a piece of performance art by the Whalley Range All-Stars, has decisively reversed a downward drift in my mood every time I have watched its excerpts, since I discovered it a few days ago. I mean that I sensed that its effect was far more complex than simply making me laugh, but without being able to say exactly why. And I would rather not know. In that respect – a delicious unaccountability – it made me think of Waiting for Godot, which somehow makes despair cheerful. It also called to mind Dada — and Marcel Marceau. ‘See wishful thinking fight it out with mental blocks and twisted logic,’ the notice for Brain Wave proclaims. I wouldn’t say that that’s what I saw – or didn’t see — in the trailer, which made me sharply regret being too far away to accept its invitation.
Do artists need any more than that from an audience?
If I went to watch that WRAS offering, I would hope to have a chance to meet the troupe’s Pig, too. This is not the only site on which that beast has been discussed obsessively, interminably, perhaps tediously, for some … but my excuse, this time, is a chance re-discovery of a truly terrible poem, my reward for tackling the consequences of a flood in a laundry room that went undiscovered for weeks:
Harmonious Hog draw near!
No bloody Butchers here,
Thou need’st not fear,
Harmonious Hog draw near, and from thy beauteous Snowt
Whilst we attend with Ear,
Like thine prick’t up devou’t;
To taste thy Sugry voice, which here, and there,
With wanton Curls, vibrates around the circling Air,
Harmonious Hog! warble some Anthem out!
from A Pindaricque, On the Grunting of a Hog , Samuel Wesley Sr., 1685