Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Good Art Isn't "Easy"

We seem to have a problem reacting to art in the US. Far too many people seem to think that art needs to be pretty and easy to digest; in effect, it's just another form of entertainment. Hence the preponderance in the "arts industry" of stuff like Thomas Kinkade's paintings, Britney Spears and Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus, and other such pretty-but-shallow "products" on the market.

Unfortunately, what that means is that work with depth and complexity is most often ignored or dismissed as elitist, pretentious, ugly, "not art", and, worst of all, "immoral". The Abstract Expressionists (yes, that's Jackson Pollock's No. 4 to the left) were dismissed as childish wannabes who hadn't taken the time or effort to learn "how to draw". Why? Because they weren't representational paintings, showing recognizable objects in recognizable surroundings. Apparently these critics weren't aware that all the painters they criticized had gone to art school and could draw like DaVinci and Michaelangelo.

The problem is that Abstract Expressionism isn't easy to digest; it takes time and effort and concentration to absorb and understand. The same holds true for the other stylistic schools of modern art, like Cubism, Minimalism and Serialism (in music), Surrealism (in all the arts, from literature to painting to music to film), and other modernist movements. This has been true down through the ages: anything new requires an enhanced level of effort and concentration to "get" the advances in artistic technique. The Impressionists were condemned as myopic; Corot's landscapes were considered the phantasms of a deranged mind; Mozart's music (of all things!) was criticized as dissonant; Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring caused a riot at its debut. It's a lesson we only seem to learn in hindsight, after the passage of much time; now the Impressionists, Corot, Mozart, and Stravinsky are all part of the artistic mainstream.

But some people are able to put aside emotional attachment to the status quo and look at, listen to, read, watch new things with an open mind. They focus, concentrate, and put some effort into trying to understand just what it is that's going on in all this "new stuff". And it's because of them that the avant garde survives the passage of time, is accepted, and becomes the mainstream of the future. We now listen to Mozart and Beethoven, read Dickens and Poe, and enjoy Monet and Gaugin because somebody was open enough to "get" them and keep them alive long enough to be accepted.

One of my favorite pieces of music is George Crumb's Black Angels. Composed in 1970 and informed by the turbulent times of its composition, Black Angels is not necessarily an easy piece to listen to. But according to Crumb, it's not meant to be "easy listening" music. He said in an interview in 1990: "Things were turned upside down. There were terrifying things in the air... they found their way into Black Angels." It's dark and dissonant, but it's also ethereal and, in the end, redemptive. Again according to Crumb: "Black Angels was conceived as a kind of parable on our troubled world. The work portrays a voyage of the soul. The three stages of the journey are Departure (fall from grace), Absence (spiritual annihilation), and Return (redemption)."

Black Angels resonates now as much as it did in 1970 because the times are once again as turbulent as those in which it was conceived. And it's still controversial; it's not "pretty", it's not "easy", you need to pay attention while listening to it. A diet of Britney Spears and Justin Bieber is not going to help you understand this piece, but in the end it means so much more than their short-lived ditties will ever mean, and will still be performed and listened to long after their songs have disappeared into the cyber-ether. Listen for yourself:

And just to put it all into perspective... This piece of music was once dismissed as dissonant and presumptuous:

And this painting and other works by this painter were dismissed as the fantasies of a disturbed mind:

Which only goes to show how wrong public opinion can be!

Text © 2010 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. Amen, Roy. A wonderful post.

    I have been ranting all my life about the sad fate of the Artist. Starving is the least of the problems. The worst agony of all is presenting your gift to the world and having it unappreciated and rejected by the ignorant. Recognition after you are dead is no good at all. Sob.

  2. Some art does actually suck. Just because you express yourself with paint, pencil or stone doesn't mean you have talent or taste and it certainly doesn't mean that anyone else who looks at it must strive to understand what it's meaning is. Sorry but just because someone calls a scribble or some paint blotches "art" doesn't mean others have to ohhh and ahhhh about it and like it.

    Sometimes someone has to shout out that "the emperor has no clothes on". Personally Pollock falls into that category for me. I don't know what he is trying to tell me with his thrown paint nor do I care and I'm not going to be told that I must enjoy something that I really don't.

    Everyone has different tastes, likes and dislikes.

  3. hey Roy ! Have A Great 2011.Best Wishes from Tony.

  4. You have to be in the actual presence of a Pollock to appreciate his psychological and emotionally profundity. I'm not an artist, but I know structure and intent when I see it, and there's nothing random about his work.

    If you haven't read it, I recommend running down Robert Hughes' The Shock of the New. Erudite and urbane, it's not only a superbly-written history of modern art through the first three-quarters of the 20th C., Shock is a probing critique of the intellectual content of modernity itself.

  5. Matt, you need to reread your Hans Christian Andersen. The point of "The Emperor's New Clothes" is that there are dishonest people who are able to manipulate public opinion for their own personal gain. None of the controversial artists I talked about in the post fit that scenario; none of them got much profit from their art. Jackson Pollock lived in a ramshackle farmhouse on Long Island; van Gogh never sold a painting during his life; Mozart died impoverished and was dumped in a common pauper's pit; and George Crumb has a roof over his head and food on his table not from his music but from his teaching job.

    The real villains are the ones who manipulate the mass market, pandering to the lowest common denominator as a way to reach the widest demographic with the least effort. People like like Thomas Kinkade and the handlers for Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus are the real devious weavers in this scenario; they've convinced a large segment of the population that the smoke and mirrors they're peddling actually have substance and weight, and they're getting very, very rich in the process.

  6. Ah I just like what I like all in the eye of the beholder and changing tastes I guess.