You Don't Understand

Eighteen months ago, forty-five minutes of my day, five days a week, were dedicated to an important project.  Over about a month, I spent hours sitting in front of an A3 piece of paper, toting a fineliner with which I painstakingly drew a hand, holding a martini glass.  Once that ordeal was complete I added some details to the background: balloons.  Then a tree.  Then a Give Way sign.  I’m a creative child.

Now if you had made somebody sit down in front of this undisputed masterpiece and explain what it meant, they naturally wouldn’t have been able to do so; but more importantly, I wouldn’t have regarded that failure as evidence of their intellectual inferiority to me.  I don’t want to talk about cases which parallel mine – that is, art created totally without meaning simply because I couldn’t leave the room and had one of the art department’s numerous intimidating characters standing over my shoulder – but I would like to address the vast number of artworks which are deliberately and utterly incomprehensible and meaningless to all but the most pretentious and/or drug-fuelled observers.  What I would like to speak against today is that in most of these cases, the artist does take that incomprehension as demonstration of their intellectual superiority, because I believe that art should always be something more than an exercise in ego-stroking and smug condescension.

Art is important.  It is one of the things which separate us from animals: the ability to convey something about ourselves and, perhaps more importantly, something about the world.  This isn’t to say every work of art must contain some deep message about life’s meaning or the human condition – art can be purely aesthetic, but it still tells us something about the world: at the very least, that it contains things which are beautiful and moving.

When somebody decides to become a professional artist, they are choosing to create art for the public and not merely themselves.  They are making a statement – not that they are washed-up or incapable of anything more “worthwhile”, but that they can produce art which delivers a message to the wider public and not just themselves.  If art is to carry a message and professional artists put their art out for public display, then these artists are – or should be – providing a message and a meaning to the people who view it.  It is incumbent upon the artist to offer a message, even if it is trivial or, by contrast, complex and difficult to grasp.

Instead we have two closely-related trends which see artists jettisoning their duty to make a statement in favour of building a pedestal for themselves.  The first is the most extreme and stubborn form of postmodernism.  Sprung from the works of Nietzsche and other philosophers of his anti-universalist ilk, this trend can be traced to the belief that the world has no meaning, there is no objective truth.  Art, then, should not offer a meaning because the world has no meaning; it should not deliver a message, because the message is false.  Art from this particularly strong school of postmodernism carries no message for this reason.

However this trend in fact works in defiance of the very philosophy it wishes to embody: Nietzsche says that there is only interpretation and no objective truth, but he goes on to say that we should recognise this fact and then find an interpretation which allows us to flourish.  The message may not ever be right, but that does not mean it has no value.  Even if there is no truth, no right way to live, we still need some way to live and postmodern art of this type offers no message and no guidance in this area.  That in itself is no damning criticism; there are innumerable things in the world which give us no message about life or how we should live it, or indeed any message at all.  But the denial of all messages is dangerous; and the ubiquitous perpetuation of art which is deliberately barren of meaning creates a situation in which we have artists creating art for apparently no reason.  If they have one, it is only this: their awareness of life’s meaninglessness makes them superior to the great unwashed, and when somebody stands before one of their paintings and asks “what does it mean?”, they can bounce a little higher on the jumping-castle of their ever-inflating ego.  “What does it mean? How very 1950s…  Meaning?  Haven’t you read Nietzsche?”  No, the inquirer probably hasn’t read Nietzsche, but that doesn’t make him a bad person any more than the artist’s directionless self-obsession makes him a good one.

The second, subtly different trend is one of deliberate obfuscation.  These people do not even attempt to hide behind the works of a fearsome moustachioed philosopher, but instead claim to be delivering, as artists should, a message.  This message, however, is buried beneath a formidable layer cake of artistic techniques which are in fact designed not to convey meaning but to conceal it.  If you are using a subtle juxtaposition of tones which complements the parallel linear composition and highlights the key dichotomised spatial elements in order to send a message, you aren’t sending a message.  You’re producing something and burying a message so deep within it that nobody could be reasonably expected to comprehend it.  Why?  So that, when people stand in front of your work and say “this is a martini glass and some balloons, it doesn’t mean anything”, you can smile to yourself and reply, “oh, it does… you just don’t understand.”  You are creating art not to send a message but to convince yourself that you exist on a higher plane than the viewing public, that you are part of a privileged elite which truly understands the world and its meaning, and conveys it in terms far too elevated for the menial philistines of the general public to understand.  Once again, your purpose is not to deliver a message about the world; it is to deliver a somewhat different message: I am awfully clever, and you poor uncomprehending dears had best just accept it.

Everybody has to contribute to society.  When someone becomes an artist, they don’t avoid this requirement – their contribution simply comes in the form of meaningful messages about the world.  Artists who abandon this responsibility in favour of attempting to establish their own superiority are forsaking their duty to society.  Their astonishing self-obsession ignores everything art should be and threatens everything art stands for.  We cannot put these people’s extended exercises in ego-inflation on public display, because to do so risks undermining one of the things which define what it is to be human.