BY NATALIE ST. MARTIN
If you have been around museums or the art scene at all, you have likely experienced it: an exhibition or work that made you roll your eyes or want to run away - you might have said, a bit too loudly, “This isn’t art!” or “What were they thinking?!” You have encountered difficult art, and you reacted in your gut, according to the authors of the book Art with a Difference: Looking at Difficult and Unfamiliar Art.
In Chapter 4 “Foucault’s Nightmare: Art and Difficulty” the authors argue that our reaction to difficult art is always a visceral one: we feel the same type of psychological discomfort as when we have been thwarted in a task. Think about it: when we don’t know what to do, or can’t do what we feel we must do, we tend to get embarrassed and angry, lashing out in either disdain or laughter.
Have you ever thought that you have been given a task when you view art? And the artist and entire scene (museum space, etc) is giving you clues about what you are supposed to do? The task at hand is understanding the meaning of the work, and knowing what to do in relationship to the work. When this task is difficult, we react. All of us do, artists, art aficionados along with the uninitiated (p. 113-115).
When we were able to accomplish that task we likely felt satisfied with the art. However, when we were thwarted – we likely thought that there was something wrong with it or the artist (or even with ourselves if we have a very high regard for art).
The authors go into detail about what exactly is unsettling about a lot of contemporary art, explaining that there are many types of difficulty. They describes how art work that presents the audience with certain types of problems has come to be the norm, and then offer some interesting explanations as why this might be such an important quality to contemporary art.
The difficulties we encounter include “knowledge based difficulty” (101-102) where we lack the subject knowledge or context we need to understand it. There is also the difficulty of ambiguous or obtuse interpretation clues, and the difficulty of knowing how something is making a claim to be art; and finally there is the difficulty of the art’s social purpose and moral stance. The authors go on to offer a variety of strategies for dealing with difficulty in art, and they have much more to say on the subject than I have even begun to touch on here.
But for now, my challenge to myself and to you is to perhaps consider for a moment longer what makes us have that gut reaction, and what sort of difficulty we are encountering. By doing this we might find that we can enter in a bit more and learn to appreciate it, or that perhaps we need to be challenged, or we might end up deciding that we flat out disagree with the artist on some point or other – but at least we have stopped to look and listen to what the art has to say.
In conclusion, I must roll my eyes at myself. As people we always want something new. But when we encounter something that is too new, we disdain it. We want artists to be creative, to flip things around for us, to catch our attention and show us something from a new angle, to put familiar things in new arrangements; but we always complain when it is too strange! I am the most guilty of this. I have hated a lot of art just because it made me uncomfortable. But in the end it will always be impossible to have our cake (surprise/newness) and eat it (comfort/easy satisfaction) too!