Saturday, July 30, 2011

Me and Modern Art (and why we don't quite understand each other)

So I went to an art museum today, and it was great!, and inspired the bellow reflections. For anyone who loves art or especially loves or hates modern art, I would really love to have your thoughts, comments & feedback!! Seriously. 

Post-script: it occurred to me that I should really be more specific by what I mean by 'modern art', and indicate that by that I mostly mean 'abstract art.' Rather than edit the whole piece however, I'm just going to declare that here and assume you get my drift in the rest of the post. 

I like art, but I am not sure it can be said that I love it. Some works of art I absolutely love, and could stare at them for hours. Sometimes in fact I am put off by how much I gravitate towards a particular piece – there is something about a captivating work of art that is much like eating a delicious meal: I want to be completely absorbed by it, but there always seems to be some thin line between touching the painting with my eyes (or tasting the meal with my tongue) and becoming completely enveloped by it – as though I am stuck on the brink of an orgasm.

So let it not be said that I am unmoved by art. However, there is so much art that leaves me either cold or uncomfortable that I think there is much to art that I do not understand – and by understand I mean not that I lack an intellectual appreciation for any type of art, but that on an intuitive, neurological level I do not connect (or am adverse to) the piece I am looking at in front of me.

At this point I should pause to explain a bit about my aesthetic preferences. Firstly, aesthetics are rather important to me, and in that sense I suppose it could be said that I love art. The differences between a dark room and a brightly lit one, a bougsie restaurant and a bland diner with a counter-top, impress upon me so much that I will do just about anything to avoid the aesthetic I am adverse to. (Including spending more money than I should.) Lighting in particular has the capacity to instantly alter my mood. So I quite notice aesthetics, and have all sorts of opinions about interior design and the such. But perhaps the best way to get at how weird, in some ways – and I might have to confess, narrow – my aesthetic preferences are is to point to one fact that has never failed to puzzle the person I’m confessing it to: I don’t like cartoons. Actually, it is not much a matter of liking or dislikingI feel as though I am allergic to cartoons. But not all animation  – I can handle the realism used in most Disney films, and the animation style used in such films as Waking Life, which I actually rather like. I am allergic to a particular type of cartoon – those that employ strange, non-geometric shapes in rendering figures and above all, those that use bright, largely primary colors. We are talking The Simpsons or Family Guy, but also the profoundly disturbing animation of Monty Python, which is unfortunate since, I otherwise love watching Monty Python. This allergy extends to such a point that I simply do not watch these shows (in the case of Monty Python I just look away and listen), and do not even like to look at pictures or depictions of them. They are off putting and creepy, a big distortive blob in an otherwise pretty landscape. This, as I have been informed by many of my friends, makes me a total freak.

Fair enough. But why the aversion? I think the root of my allergy to cartoons comes from a deep-rooted fear of being separated from, or being unable to grasp, reality as I know and love it. I remember thinking as a child how awful it would be to be born blind, because the blind, of course, have no idea of what the world essentially looks like. This fear of being ripped away from my conscious experience of reality – the aesthetics of which I am, apparently, very attached to – has manifested in several other ways, from my terror at the thought of brain damage to the panic attack I endured when I ingested far too much of a particular plant usually considered on the mild side of intoxicants. I also, it might be added, usually hate anthropomorphic things: therefore, combing as it does odd shapes, bright colors and anthropomorphism, Sponge Bob is quite possibly the most terrifying image I can think of, and I absolutely resent that I have to endure his plastered image assaulting me from all over the place.

Given this somewhat mysterious set of revulsions, it might be easily guessed which style of art is my least favorite: modern art, from Cubism on up. I do not dislike all modern art – there is quite a lot I’m rather fond of, actually. But in any given art museum, I browse through the modern art section rather quickly, and feel either unmoved by a lot of it to actively suspicious. However, my response is more than just aesthetic – or perhaps, because aesthetically I am unmoved, intellectually I am bored – much of the time I simply do not know what I am supposed to be getting from modern art. And yes I know, I know that art is in the eye of the beholder, and every artist knows that his art is open to multiple interpretations and indeed, with modern art this is usually the goal to a certain extent. But at the same time I am dubious about this – all artists, whether they admit it or not, are trying to communicate something that originated in their own minds, and therefore even though they might certainly imagine a wide range of responses to a particular piece, surely they have something, some message they are trying to communicate that exists in multiple forms in a general ballpark of limited interpretation. If this wasn’t the case, I couldn’t see how artists could make any choices as to how to craft their work. And often, as I look at a piece, I think, “Really? I’ve got nothing.”

And yet I certainly hope a lot of modern art is intended to be funny, because in all honesty laughter is one of my most common responses. This isn’t usually intended to be derogatory – indeed if I am laughing it means that the piece has actually invoked a much more potent response in me than the vast majority of modern art, which is a good thing. For example, today I saw a giant painting of jelly doughnuts, which, while my brain picked up on the likelihood that they were pastries immediately, also looked kind of like big bleeding clumps of flesh or gaping vaginas during menstruation – and yet when I looked again, after confirming they were in fact jelly doughnuts, they just looked friendly and silly. The response I have to this art that makes me laugh is the exact same I have to Conan O’Brian or Monty Python sketches that walk that fine line between brilliance and stupidity – which is simply to think, “*lol*, that’s stupid.”[1]

So clearly I am capable of enjoying modern art, in my way. But I think part of the challenge I face with modern art is due to how my own soul aims to understand the world – and this is by and large by way of intellect. Yes, I am a highly emotional and subjective person (as though any of us aren’t), and I enjoy this subjectivity intensely. But I tend to grapple with the word intellectually, or that is, through the processing and measuring of concrete claims. So when I look at a piece of modern art that does not have a clear purpose or message, or does not seem to say anything at all, I am annoyed. “What’s your point?” I think – and I ask this not because I think the art has failed at accomplishing any point of value, but because I am seriously suspicious of the claim, which seems to be made by many who appreciate modern art, that there is no point (or more accurately, that the point is whatever you make of it.) I’ve already explained why I doubt this; but in addition, if it were true, I have to admit I then feel somewhat offended. Why would you create something with no point, with no subjective point of view you were trying to communicate? I am standing here, genuinely interested in whatever it is you have to share with me, and all you are going to do is look back at me (I suppose I am talking to the piece here or, the imagined artist) and say (let’s imagine a French accent here) “Le point? There is no point, just experience. You bourgeois intellectuals are always looking for points – so limited!”  (Note it could also be an American hippy delivering this speech.) At which point I am just exasperated and give up.

It is no surprise therefore that the art which I am the best at, and in which I find the most hope for mankind, is the most solid of the art forms – writing. And that in turn, my least favorite form of writing is the one that is the most slippery, the one that refuses most strongly my question of ‘what’s your point?’ – poetry. I don’t dislike all poetry, and some of it I genuinely love (and I have to admit I write it from time to time) – but there is much of it where I simply have no fucking clue what is being communicated. None. At. All. And that annoys the shit out of me. But I suppose I am simply stupid in this regard, although I do not mean this in a derogatory sense at all – it is simply not what speaks to me; it does not move within my subjectivity or the talents of my intellect, and the same applies to much of modern art. This was probably the fact from the moment I was plopped out on the hospital table and will probably remain so until the day I die, although some appreciation for unfamiliar art forms can usually be gained through education.

And yet while writing is perhaps the least subjective of the art forms, my trouble with art cannot be due to a general aversion to subjectivity, because I love music. Indeed sometimes when I think of artists, I wonder how many of them were simply compensating for the fact that they couldn’t be musicians. To me, it is music which communicates the subjective in a way which is open to multiple interpretations, but almost never leaves anyone cold. I can dislike a piece of music strongly, but it never leaves me unmoved, untouched in any direction. Music always immediately impinges upon my subjective reality and expresses itself forcefully. And yet I have to admit, I try to solidify even the experience of music into a more concrete form by grafting it onto words: almost all of my creative writing, and some of my formal writing, is written to or inspired primarily by a particular piece of music. While music reigns supreme in my mind as the most powerful of the art forms, I never cease trying to make what it reveals more concrete, and more accessible, by way of writing. I desperately want to be able to capture this subjective experience in a way that can transferred objectively – so that it might be shared with others.

And thus when I am standing in front of a piece of art that leaves me cold or annoyed, I often imagine that artists must be some of the loneliest people on the planet. I imagine this is mostly projection on my part – although there is no lack of tortured artist stories – but I can only imagine the frustration of trying to communicate something so abstract and inaccessible, that a confusing, obscure piece of modern art is the closest, most effective method of going about trying to capture it. I have enough trouble trying to externalize myself as it is, and most of what I consider valuable in my intellectual and artistic life can be clearly rendered through the much more straightforward symbolism of language. I can only imagine having a bunch of randomly arranged triangles or indiscriminate blobs of paint being the ultimate expression of what I value. And perhaps this is, at the root of it, why I do not like modern art: for me it speaks to how inaccessible, and how lonely, our inner states can sometimes be. As I stare at a work of modern art I receive no message from, I shudder to think how often someone reads my writing and likewise, feels nothing.

[1] And yes, if I am not laughing out loud I sometimes consciously think “lol.” There’s some modern art for you.

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