The essay I promised to post

Difficulty and the intellect.

The ideology of being a well-meaning anti-elitist is hard to let go of. There is a perceived political correctness in trying to make art that can engage the ‘general public’, a virtuousness of trying not to be high brow but to be on the same level as the ‘average person’. At the same time there is something really admirable about being an expert in your field. We can’t get enough of sporting heroes and we are impressed by those who develop new technology. In art however there seems to be a perception of intellectual elitism that is exclusive and impenetrable. Of the vastly diverse talks within the seminar program, four interrelated moments stand out for me. Each of them were points that stimulated an exploration of this projected elitism and which in turn allowed me to reconsider my approach to intellectualism within art, once I’d addressed the broader issue of arts’ position within the context of our wider society.

In a round table discussion documented as part of the 2004 Australian Art Now exhibition catalogue Pillip Brophy commented on an essay he recently wrote for Callum Morton. He described it as being a

“typically long-winded, lurid, self collapsing attack on architects and has no redeeming value for anyone except Callum…. You either get it or you don’t. If you don’t then that’s the sign that there is space beyond your critical monocle.” [1]

Initially this came across as being deliberately exclusive, to knowingly alienate the reader/viewer by publishing a private joke between the writer and artists and comes across as being boringly high-brow and narcissistically self absorbed. When I’m looking at art, when I read about art or when I hear an artist talking about their work what I am partly hoping for is a sense of connectedness. An ‘aha’ moment, or the kind of mild epiphany of understanding which Alain De Botton refers to as the ‘finger placing ability’[2].

“It stretches an ability to describe these (similarities) far better than we would have been able to, to put a finger on perceptions that we recognize as our own yet could not have formulated on our own”[3].

For the majority of speakers at the seminar program this was most certainly the experience, but what do you do when you’re confronted by someone who says if you don’t get it then it’s your fault. You’re the philistine with the gap in your ‘critical monocle’. Generally speaking this accusation gets read as coming from an elitist position. When we are confronted by something that is hard to understand we call it pretentiousness, impenetrable theory with irrelevant language. There is a reactionary feeling not of connectedness but of alienation and elitism.

Occasionally Public art is put forward as a solution to break down elitism. However in an example sited by Amanda Rodriguez Alveres, art in public places does not necessarily engage the audience any more than art in a gallery. She referred to an incident with MICO in which they realized that one aspect of their presumed audience was illiterate and therefore could not read the banners and posters that MICO had been dispersing around the city. Whilst the deinstitutionalization of their collaborative work was often successful in its engagement with the general public, we might conclude that it’s not always the audience that doesn’t understand art, but that we fail to understand our audience. It also highlights that the argument about elitism isn’t about access but more specifically about accessibility. Just because art is on the street doesn’t mean it is any easier to understand, or that the invisible barriers of exclusive language are broken down just because the physical walls are removed.

Another more dubious response to making art more accessible is the intervention of education officers, and explanatory text panels in larger galleries. Admittedly for some people this does provide an easy entry into the work, but predominantly what these two things do is flatten the work. They dumb it down and simplify it into dictatorial bite size grabs. And the over explaining of the work often does a disservice to subtlety and complexity, and frequently tell you what you should be seeing or experiencing and denies you the opportunity to contemplate the work yourself and consider your own experience of looking the art.

It might be suggested that the argument about elitism in art is not just a matter of choosing one extreme or the other but more about examining this term so you can make a better decision about where you stand in relation to it. A few weeks ago I read an article by John Armstrong that allowed me to come to terms with the accusation of elitism in art. He defined elitism as the artificial barrier of “pretentious talk, prohibitive expense, rituals of etiquette”[4] which results in a fairly small audience of those in the know. Whilst he claims this is true of the arts he identifies that it is only true in as much as it is true of any subculture or micro-culture within society. He sites sport as an example, having its own language, its particular manner of behavior, and its own insular codes. There are rules and a history and value that to an outsider appear foreign. The only reason he claims that we accept this in sport is because of its popularity. As basic as it may sound what this has helped me to identify is that we are making art within a particular context and therefore its language is specifically relevant to that space.

So it would seem that it is not the exclusiveness of art that is the problem, its not that it is elite. Perhaps it is the difficulty that is the problem. In his article Armstrong proposes that it’s easier to falsely project blame onto external barriers such as snobbery and pretentious language than it is to admit that you are too apathetic to rise to engage properly with creations of human imagination[5]. This perhaps is more the issue; that we lack the discipline to pay attention long enough to make sense of the complexities we face in art. Personally I find that it’s not so much apathy but bewilderment that prevents me from embracing intellectualism in art. It is such an awkward struggle to unlock mental complexity, at best I am clumsy and fumbling and at worst I wonder if even English is a second language to me. What is most frustrating though is when you suspect that you don’t have the tools to dissect it.

So what tools are required? In John Nixon’s crowd pleasing talk he said that art is an endurance event, and I suspect that this is the key to getting through difficulty. He spoke with an economic use of language that was refreshingly simple. But his straightforwardness was surprising because it was only a simplicity of oral language not of concept. It certainly wasn’t basic because his practice lacks depth, it was uncluttered and refined by what I can only assume has been a long process of mentally distilling the expansiveness of his practice. I think I’ve heard this process referred to as finding simplicity on the other side of complexity. What this illuminated was a possibility that clarity and confidence will come over time through sheer persistence and dedication.

In Jonathan Franzen’s Essay Mr Difficult  he says that enduring difficulty can make you feel virtuous “as if I’d run three miles…been to the dentists, filed my tax return and gone to church”[6], but realistically it’s not something we do if given the choice. We live in a society were we make all the demands, we are required very infrequently to think abstractly, to probe an issue deeply or to spend time in silent contemplation. We equate complexity with hard work which we begrudgingly do despite knowing that we can sometimes actually benefit from it. What is sometimes overlooked is that philosophical thinking and intellectual wrestling can also be incredibly rewarding. Serious research, deep abstract thinking and rigorous reading can provide a pool of richness that can’t be acquired by skimming the surface of a topic. When I’ve persisted with difficulty I know it has given me a greater capacity to make more precise, appropriate and considered decisions about my work. And if nothing else, has contributed to a greater understanding and fuller appreciation of art.

Perhaps it is time to let go of some of the skepticism I have about intellectualism in art. Having addressed the fact that I have chosen to be part of a serious community that may not be popular but as a result of its demands can be rewarding in its challenges, it makes no sense to be intimidated by difficulty or intellectualism. It’s time to do some polishing of the critical monocle.

[1] Waite. D (ed). Two Thousand and Four. Council of Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria. 2004

[2] De Botton A How Proust can change your life. Picador. London 1998 p28
[3] ibid p 28

[4] Armstrong John.Elite Elitist’ A3 The Age. Monday, August 16, 2004 p7

[5] ibid
[6] Franzen Jonathan. How to be Alone. Harper Perennial. London 2004 p245