Have you ever heard the statement “Art for Art’s sake”? Ever wonder just what that might mean? Obviously, if it is for the sake of Art alone, it can’t be for the sake of an audience, it can’t be for the sake of some extraneous cultural impact, and these things can only be susceptible to measurement by accident rather than intention (I’ve been reading a lot of arts advocacy blogs recently about how important it is to ‘measure‘ the importance of Art as an argument to justify its funding. What I’d also like to see is a measurement of the importance of measuring the importance of Art….). In other words, art for Art’s sake needs no other justification, is its own justification, and is not meant to serve another purpose. Its not meant to communicate, but it can do so in the sense that we can sometimes find meaning in tea leaves in the bottom of a cup, carpenter bees weaving buzzing patterns patrolling their airspace, the entrails of sheep, or a neighbor’s grumpy looks. In other other words, we can interpret meaning by investing things with a purpose they don’t always originally have. And when an artist is caught up in simply expressing some creative vision, what the public makes of it can sometimes be a marvel of invention.
Whatever that Swedish artist thought he was expressing, what it communicated to the public was either a public relations disaster or a brilliantly reckless instigation of dialog about subjects that most people prefer to quietly sweep under the carpet. If you don’t mind poking people in the eye, a well timed jab can do wonders for a wake-up. Insensitivity with a purpose. Tough love. The kiss of knuckles…. But the unintentional purposeless elbow to the temple or knee to the groin never lives up to that, and communicates about as effectively as an auto collision: Whatever you were doing before you struck the public head on is wasted in the orgy of misunderstanding, crumpled metal, airbags, and accusations of negligence in its aftermath. Finding solace in the invented meaning of what just happened can sometimes be dangerously delusional….
Poorly understood or controversially communicative art always seems to accuse someone of having failed somewhere along the line…. Either its an accusation that the public are ignorant dunderheads, that they are not properly ‘cultured’, that they are philistines, that even the critics aren’t properly initiated into the mysteries of the cult of their ‘Art’, that the cultural climate makes it difficult to appreciate, that society simply isn’t ready, that society has outgrown it, that society is backwards, or some other societal ‘flaw’.
Or, the finger can be pointed in the other direction and may be seen as the artist having been too obscure, unnecessarily obtuse, alarmingly insensitive, gratuitously offensive, or arrogantly self-centered. Or possibly its that there was a flaw in the execution, or the materials did not do enough to support the intentions of the message. Or maybe its a physical disability and the audience has either poor eyesight, no ear, all thumbs, two left feet, bad breath, and body odor. Or perhaps its a social one, and the public have no traditional cultural markers, insufficient breeding or taste, or intrinsic etymological handicaps and incompatibilities. It can be a simple case of culture shock. Quite possibly artists are speaking the wrong language and the public doesn’t have the proper linguistic or cultural tools to decipher and interpret the artistic jargon.
Sometimes its like spotting whales in the Sahara, or trying to grow cacti outside in polar Siberia. Some art strikes an audience as dissonantly as if the Stanford Marching Band were performing a Japanese Tea Ceremony in drag between moves during a World Chess Tournament. Or like using the Black Sabbath live album “Live Evil” as the scoring for a version of Puccini’s “La Boheme”. Sometimes creative minds just mash things up that offer the public only ludicrous perplexity. Sometimes the mash-up is brilliant juxtaposition, but sometimes it is such an act of defiance that the viewers only flinch back protecting their eyes and sensibilities. When artists play with people’s normal expectations sometimes the best we can hope for is that it will be taken as a joke, and not in too poor taste…..
Monty Python always knew a thing or two about the funny side of absurdity:
All sorts of potential for misunderstanding and disconnect exists. The seeds an artist is preparing may not always be sown in the right soil for it to grow into something understood, much less loved by society (IF that was even its intention). Sometimes an artist casting seeds from that distant alien planet will be more like a remote celestial gardener dropping asteroids of infertile incomprehensible chaff. Or a buffling bumboon sticking his mouth in his foot. Or, an unknowable alien setting off hostile explosive charges, threatening our ‘values’.
Another example: The controversial Statue of Peter the Great has become a much debated topic since its sponsor, the previous Mayor of Moscow, was ousted from office. Without this institutional backing the desirability of this artistic statement came under scrutiny. Some wanted it melted down, the proceeds to pay for civic and charitable causes, others wanted it moved elsewhere, and some wanted it detonated as a deserving end to what many were calling “among the world’s ugliest architectural structures” .
The artist defended his sculpture in this way: “You have no ear, but you applaud, shouting: ‘Oh, how good Tchaikovsky or maybe Beethoven sounds!’ But you have no ear. Art is Chinese to you. What a color scheme, volume, plasticity, vertical and horizontal composition are-you don’t know anything, but you shout anyway.” (Quoted from Art News Jan 2011, p. 39)
In other words, it is incomprehensible because the audience has no clue. Don’t blame the Art. Its the sad sack public that can’t get its head around this brilliance. Its simply the public’s fault for not speaking ‘Chinese’. Duh!
But if some artists were really interested in communicating, they might be less caught up in the necessity of speaking an artistic Jargon. They might realize that expressing what’s on their mind won’t always be in harmony with the company they are keeping. They might see that every expression is not easily understood as communication. Nor is every expression appropriate for every audience.
And from the public’s point of view, when art IS thoughtfully set out, and is meant to be shared, we can often see what it means to us. But there can still be a gap to what the artist intended. We can also try to see what it means to the artist, and not just our interpretation of it. It can be like a conversation in our everyday lives: We understand what the words mean, but what is the person really saying? What we sometimes need is an anthropological sensitivity to other people’s creativity. Sometimes we need to look even behind the words we understand to find the intentions of what exactly is being communicated.
And maybe its a result of this difficulty, but some art these days is put out in the public with the disclaimer that it doesn’t matter what the artist intended. The declaration is that its meaning is “open to interpretation”. The artist’s intention is either irrelevant or there was no intention. Its as if this art is so immune to the possibility of being ‘correctly’ understood that it makes the claim that anything whatever that it communicates is acceptable. Its as if any old reaction will do, as long as its a reaction. And THAT is not what counts as communication. Brute stimulus response perhaps….
Its not just the absurdity of purposely mashing together logically inconsistent expectations, but the deeper absurdity that nothing at all really matters. Something disturbingly nihilistic. If one person’s response is global annihilation and another’s is global harmony, this art doesn’t seem to care. Its not trying to be funny, and its not even trying to be particularly absurd, not to make a point, and not for any purpose. It just is whatever it is (whatever ‘that’ may be) for no other reason, art for art’s sake, tealeaves in the bottom of a cup, a collision on the roadside…. This art is almost an accident, and anything it means to people is also an accident. And I’m just not sure how that makes sense as a laudable pursuit. Our human search for meaning seems to want something more. Surely art should strive for something more…?
Art that tries to communicate is art with a purpose. And the miracle of communication is not that we so often agree with each other. Rather, the true miracle is that we are even sometimes curious and open minded enough to see the sense in what others say that conflicts with or disagrees with our own views. The world has this fabulous potential for multiplicity and plurality, inconsistency and contradiction, and its only our curiosity that keeps tolerance alive for us. Without curiosity we are baffled and surprised that anyone could possibly not agree with us or fail to see things as we do. Without curiosity there are no shades of gray, only black and white. There is no mystery, only sense and nonsense, and there is nothing left to explore. Without curiosity, why would art even matter to us?
What we really need is to approach other people’s creative expression as though we were xenoarcheologists of the planet Jargon rather than narcisscientists of the planet Solipsis. We need to approach it with the open minded curiosity of explorers, not the confession seeking ministrations of inquisitors. And as artists putting things out in the public sphere we need to consider what things are simply our personal expression and what things are purposely designed to communicate. The two may not always be the same thing. And we should not be surprised that all our expression fails to communicate or expect that all our communication finds a receptive audience….
And just how much of this epic venture into the upper atmosphere of the planet Jargon is going to make sense to you readers? How much was me expressing myself, and how much me actually trying to communicate? Its a question, after all. Did I do enough to make it accessible, enough to make it interesting? Was it too long to be effective? And if anyone actually made it to the end of two longish posts, did they interpret what I set out the way I intended it?
In the end, what is the difference between someone who passes by a pottery display and a person who stops and takes a look?