Monday, 26 March 2012

Obscurantism and Accessibility

It is well known that many people have no time for contemporary art because they perceive it as elitist nonsense. Many also dismiss philosophy for the same reason. There seems to be a general expectation, in the UK at least, that all forms of culture should be accessible to everyone and that any work that demands anything more than a cursory acknowledgement of skill or investment of thought is, by definition, a form of obscurantism: a deliberate attempt to conceal knowledge or prevent understanding.

It is widely accepted that quantum physics, higher mathematics, brain surgery and rocket science all involve levels of expert knowledge that are not readily accessible or easily explained but when it comes to art, - especially visual art – it is not uncommon for the works of artists, sometimes of the most prosaic kind, to be met with hostility and consternation.

During a tutorial a year ago, a student said to me:

“I want to make work that folk can understand.”

Fair enough I thought, but I asked him to elaborate a little, to which he said:

“I’d like to make work my mum or gran can understand. I went to the Art Gallery with them the other day I had to keep explaining all the artworks. I don’t want my art to be like that.”

I fumbled my way towards some kind of reply but in retrospect I wish I’d simply asked:

“Do your mum and gran like the music you listen to?”

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to wish to be understood, to strive to communicate clearly and to avoid willful obscurity. Nonetheless we need to take care that the impetus towards clarity, for its own sake, does not compromise the possible outcomes of high-level enquiry and expression, or the routes we might take to achieve these. If we limit our communications in the hope of making them accessible to all possible audiences then we will very quickly find ourselves speaking in the tongues of infants. We have no alternative than to assume a general level of conversance but this need not prevent us from at the same time modulating our communications in relation to the audience we are addressing. This latter point is surely a major factor in what distinguishes good communicators from poor ones.

There are many esoteric fields of enquiry in the world of expertise, requiring many elaborate and sophisticated theories and elements of jargon in order to engage with them at the highest levels. In spite this, it is frequently possible to make significant portions of complex thought and research accessible to a wider public. This fact is attested to by the plethora of popular science books and magazines available on the shelves of almost any bookshop. But the flipside of the esoteric is not the clear, the obvious or the common, as is so often mistakenly thought, but rather the dumbed-down and we shouldn't therefore be too hasty in requiring everything to be brought down to our level. If we wish to increase our understanding then we surely need to rise to the challenges of the new and the unfamiliar. Genuine learning of complex subject matter is rarely easy, in fact it is frequently arduous.

But what of mystification and obscurantism? And how might we distinguish the abstruse (ie: the difficult to understand) from the utterly impenetrable? These are not easy questions to answer – especially so because many falsehoods are not recognized as such even by their perpetrators, let alone the uninitiated. Indeed it is one of the defining features of mysticism in particular that it does not welcome analysis of its foundations, expecting its initiates to accept these as unquestionable articles of faith. I think it’s fair to say therefore that any field that willingly makes itself available for closer scrutiny cannot legitimately be labeled as either obscurantism or mysticism, no matter how esoteric its details. It might even be said that to the degree to which any form of knowledge is capable (and willing) of being reduced – through explanation - to first principles (perhaps even at the risk of dumbing down) it gains a right to our serious consideration. Ladders are ascended rung by rung and I see no risks in providing additional rungs at the lower levels of explanation in order to permit an opportunity of access for everyone willing to invest energy in making an ascent.

In the arts this process of providing a means of access to more complex ideas has traditionally been served by technical virtuosity and beauty. These help to reassure the uninitiated that the artist is in earnest and has trained to a high level and might therefore have something more substantial to offer than technical mastery alone. However, many contemporary artists reject this assumption as a flawed premise. Instead they argue for conceptual rigour and the critical integrity of artworks. They view traditional ideas of beauty and virtuosity as suspicious since these are commonly used to distract from or shore-up works of conceptual or poetic superficiality or incoherence.

However, viewers new to contemporary art and unfamiliar with such strategies are likely to find many
contemporary artworks difficult to approach, and it is not surprising that this occasionally leads to accusations of elitism and obscurantism. In recent decades many public galleries and museums have attempted to bridge this gap through policies of interpretation, education and social inclusion that seek to explain contemporary art not by dumbing it down but by providing means and tools to understanding and appreciation (rungs on a ladder). Whilst these policies are frequently criticized by artists for compromising the integrity of contemporary art (indeed for dumbing it down) it seems likely, in conclusion, that this tension is more a reflection of an ongoing and perhaps irresolvable conflict between those who uncompromisingly seek work of the highest order and those who demand a right not to be excluded.


Sean said...

But if the average fine artist is just slightly below average intelligence (, why would they need to dumb their work down?


J. Hamlyn said...

For all the social workers and accountants that want to switch careers:

Mind you, the engineers come out pretty poorly on analytical writing and verbal skills.

But as you know, once you start to inspect the detail and sources it soon becomes clear that most of these things are works of fiction - artists must be way lower!

Ross Finnie said...

I think there's something about the art world that excludes outsiders, often without realising. I am certainly against the idea of dumbing down, but there are surely far greater steps that can be taken to improve access to higher-level art works and to improve the transparency of the art world as a whole.

I think a major step would be acknowledging that the "ordinary person on the street" is not necessarily the sort of Philistine idiot who needs work to be dumbed down, as is often assumed. I know several friends of mine have real difficulty dealing with conceptually-based artworks, despite being highly educated, well read, etc.

One area that struck me as a possible explanation was in "the ordinary person's" education into art. For example, until I started studying at an art school, all of my education in art had been in purely aesthetic and technical terms, and I assume a similar story would be true of many of the general population.

J. Hamlyn said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments Ross.

I think a lot of this comes down to the idea, that I mentioned at the beginning, that art should somehow be accessible to all. Perhaps we need to tear ourselves away from this idea and replace it with the notion that art is available to all ie: in the same way that many other experiences are available to everyone. Strictly speaking, art isn’t accessible to all. If it were, there wouldn’t be an issue. I think the problems arise when people take the inaccessibility of art as some kind of purposeful, ignorant or high-minded exclusivity when in fact it’s simply the result of an involved process that takes time and engagement to appreciate fully.
We don’t berate mountains for being hard to climb – not seriously anyway. And whilst they might be ‘available’ to all, they certainly aren’t accessible to all.

The other aspect of this is that whilst art might be available to all – and far more so than mountains – many people find that they have too little time or energy to devote to engage seriously with art. And that’s okay. We each have to make choices in life about how to direct our energies , especially when it comes to demanding pastimes. But we can’t go adding steps to every mountain just to make sure that people don’t feel excluded - though we might on one or two just to encourage the wary.

I totally agree with you too about how art education in schools focuses almost entirely upon the aesthetic and the technical. It might be argued that this is exactly where the real dumbing down is happening and the effects are profound:

gaius gracchus said...

Comparing art to physics is absurd. Having studied higher mathematics and physics, I know that either you can solve the problem or equation or you cannot. Simple.
This clarity of "either you get it or you don't" we see in the physical sciences is the exact polar opposite from what we see in art and the various pseudo-sciences.

Artists would like for us to believe it is the same -- as this author tries to assert -- that "either you get it or you don't", but nothing could be further from the truth.

This is not to say that all art should be accessible to all people without any education or effort at all. However, there are many, many mediocre, even lousy, artists producing sludge that is meaningless to anyone but themselves, who would love for us to believe that the reason we don't appreciate their creations is because we are just too ignorant or dumb to get it.

Artists ultimately should produce art for themselves. If it happens to reasonate with others, all well and good. If not, let's not pretend there is some absolute standard of 'good art' by which it can be measured. Art and its appreciation is a SUBJECTIVE thing, period. Some art does require more depth or knowledge to appreciate, but that does not change the basic nature of what art IS.

Ali said...

Having read several posts on this excellent site it's obvious to me that the last commenter has missed the point almost entirely. There is no "assertion" of "either you get it or you don't" to be found anywhere in this post and, even if there were, I wonder if the last commenter has ever heard of Schrodinger's cat Heisenberg's uncertainty principle?

Great post by the way.

Anonymous said...

I am supposed to write a 1000-word article on 'Conflict of cultural identity vs Obscurantism in Arts'. Can you please give me an idea where to start/how to go about the assignment? Please and thanks.

Jim Hamlyn said...

That's like being asked to compare Swiss cheese with tennis. You might say that obscurantism is sometimes the result of differing cultural expectations but other than that the assignment seems rather obscure in itself.

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