Less is more: a response to two remarks
More than a decade ago I spent two relatively happy years as a student in an art college. I was doing my Foundation studies. These studies lasted from 2005 – 2007. I became so engaged, challenged and intrigued by the unfolding experience that I treated the course as a full-time process. It was a serious business. During the second year I was even asked by the Course Director, a woman in her early middle-age, to act as a tutor on an accompanying course – with the special role of helping the young men studying for their Foundation in Art and Design to discuss the existential issues and concerns that featured prominently in their current lives. (I felt honoured to be so considered.)
I enjoyed the course – in large part because there was no teaching and almost minimal staff contact. This meant that I was not interfered with! I had a free hand to respond in ways of my own choosing and I had to take full responsibility for the choices that I made. Despite the fact that the staff left me to my own devices I was particularly struck by two remarks that were made by different tutors.
The first occurred when, late in the second year, a young woman tutor addressed the class as a whole and told everyone on the course that each of us ‘should have or develop a theory of art’. Her remark was met with what seems the usual resentment and some hostility (there was an anti-academic mood) and yet I thought she was right. I was forced to ask myself: ‘Well, do you, Robert Adlam, really have a well-grounded theory of art?‘ I was not certain that I did have an adequate theory of art. I took her seriously and instead of running around gawping at more and more art I started the difficult process of elaborating such a theory. (I first turned to philosophers who had something to say about art – beginning with Book Ten of Plato’s ‘The Republic’. To understand Plato, here in Book Ten, requires a proper grasp of his overall philosophy. Unfortunately these things can’t be rushed! )
On another occasion in our obligatory drawing class I was using a pencil to draw a still-life composition. I had made the mistake of positioning myself in relation to the displayed objects such that I disliked the arrangement facing me. I did not fully realise this until someway into the drawing. But worse, I ended up condemning myself to pencilling in the intricate details of a finely woven piece of basket-work. This was utterly tedious. What a trial! The member of staff looked at my work and simply said: ‘Not bad, Robert – but you’ve got to make it interesting. Art has to be interesting.’ She was quite right. My drawing was mind-numbingly boring.
Since those remarks by the tutors two things have happened. First, I have, little by little, edged towards at least a definition of art. (In fact, I have not so much a definition but a way of understanding how something – even something relatively intangible – gets to be categorised as art. (It is closely associated with the notion of a cluster concept (see: Wittgenstein; see: Gracyk) ) On top of that I have examined certain concepts that are deployed in discourse about art – such as ‘ontology’ and ‘authenticity’ ‘meaning and interpretation’ ‘mass art’ and ‘popular culture’. These are subjects that cannot be treated superficially. For example, Lady Gaga is a serious cultural phenomenon and, in certain respects, an authentic and elaborate work of art.
Second, I have realised that much of art really does need to be ‘interesting.’ I think that this is both a good thing and a bad thing. It means that whatever it is I and others might be doing the spectre of ‘interestingness’ hangs over it! We cannot just achieve technical excellence. We have to ‘spice things up’, be unusual, display originality, offer up surprises, make a spectacle, deliver a shock, say the unsayable. Sometimes, though, I think people try too hard and strain the work to the point that it is either so obscure that it is meaningless or it hides behind the cloak of ‘shock and awe.’ (Robert Hughes once remarked about collapsing upon ‘the vulgar expedient of size.’) And there is an awful lot of indulgent asinine posturing in the exclusive confines of the art world. Will Gompertz is quite explicit about this!
It is also a problem because the ‘interesting’ rather reflects a quasi-departure from reality. Most of the time, life is banal and plainly, for lots of people, just boring. I wonder if art-as-something-interesting is, in part, an anthropological design to ‘distract’ people generally and shift them into the realm of ‘surprise’. Perhaps it has taken on a ‘well, who’d have though that?’ kind of ethos. On the other hand something has struck me about this imperative – this ‘it, art, must be interesting’ phenomenon. It is to do with the unconscious: anything off-beat, surprising, bizarre, or unexpected has a kind of riveting effect: and it is perfectly possible that unconscious desires are temporally met – as the psyche experiences a sudden freedom from the reality principle and the constraints of the super-ego. (See: Rosemary Jackson)
On a different note, I also realise that I work far better independently of the presence of other people. For example, the three-week break in the long MA semester process has been wonderful. I have been able to produce and study in an uninterrupted way. Life is disturbing enough; I simply am not that good at interacting with other people if I want to get anything done. For this, and other reasons, I am not at all well-equipped to participate in the art world!