Thursday, 2 August 2018

The Artist's Paradox

An acquaintance of mine recently published an article in her university's paper, defending certain kinds of art and discussing how it exists to challenge boundaries. The very existence of the article made me very, very sad. 

There are many kinds of art that I cannot claim to 'understand'. I look at the work of Mondrian and see my year one ICT lesson using Windows Paint. I here Reich's Electric Counterpoint and feel my ears slowly imploding. I read George Elliot's Middlemarch and, as it ends, I do not read George Elliot because my tiny little mind just does not have the patience to read beyond the first page. 

I would not, however, be so bold as to criticize any of the above works. Whilst I get no enjoyment out of experiencing them for myself - and struggle to perceive how anyone else could - I would not assume that there is not anyone out there enjoying these pieces. After all, with a world population of over 7 billion, there has to be someone, somewhere whose taste aligns to that of such artists. 

In modern Western society, we take art very seriously. Experts scour through every piece in their field, analysing the very bones of it and teaching others to do the same. There are degrees dedicated to tearing art apart, stroke by stroke, note by note, just to get to the very earth of its hidden meaning. And, though the majority of us could not be classed as experts, there are very few people who do not have any opinion on any art form. 

This is good, excellent, in fact, because it means that art serves its greatest purpose: to be enjoyed, to be shared and, more than anything, to challenge. 

Yet, there are some who take this, perhaps, a little too far. One looking at a Mondrian piece might wave their hand dismissively, declaring that "I could do that." Someone listening to Reich might turn their nose up, arguing that "that's just maths and pushing buttons." And people reading some of the oldest classics do toss them down, calling them boring or unworthy of their time. All three statements are followed by one, very firm conclusion: 

That's not art. 

And so we come to the crest of this argument: who on earth is to say what is and is not art? Not only does it continually evolve, meaning that those who dislike a certain form might simply be just a little too far behind the times; it exists not for the analysis of the audience but for the benefit of the creator. Actors use their many characters to explore roles and states of being to which their society would otherwise deny them access. Painters take the painful nonsense in their minds and articulate it visually before they are forced to release it in a less socially acceptable way. Writers and musicians use their craft to implicitly and, therefore, safely present challenges to the things going wrong in the world around them.  In short, art is, by its very definition, the unacceptable. 

Creators use their outlets as a means of understanding, criticising and, sometimes, changing the things that they wish were different. To say that it is unacceptable to call a piece 'art' is therefore paradoxical: it is only through being, in some way, inadmissible that art can truly be art. Even the most straight-laced, mainstream of works will, on some level, be saying something. 

Thus, it is not merely arrogant, but damaging to dismiss art that we do not like, for, sometimes, the most meaningful, expressive pieces are those that we find most difficult to understand.

More than this, art is, for many, one of very few avenues to freedom. The second we begin policing it, we lose one of the most precious things in our society. So, to say that art is not art is surely to say that my mind is not my own and, at least for now, I'd like to hope this untrue. 

You can read the article that triggered this post by clicking here.

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