On understanding the arts

Earlier this year I wrote a post about reading difficult literature. I said that I like to be challenged by literature, and discussed the features that define “difficulty” for me. Since then I’ve come across various statements, some contradictory, about the role of “difficulty” in the arts – and I thought I’d share them with you as part of a continued discussion.

Australian art critic Robert Hughes (quoted from the recent documentary series, Brilliant creatures):

You have to realise, of course, that no painting that’s of any quality is really very easy to understand because the function of a painting is always to expand one’s experience and so if it were easy to understand, then it would fall within what you already knew.

I’m not sure I agree with this. Surely art, and here I’m extending Hughes’ statement to all art forms, doesn’t have to be difficult to introduce a new idea or experience way of seeing things? Difficulty can be useful because it can force us to think, but I don’t see it as essential. Am I reading this statement too simplistically?

In Tolstoy’s book, What is art (which I admit to not having read, so I may be taking this out of context), he says that:

The business of art lies just in this, — to make that understood and felt which, in the form of an argument, might be incomprehensible and inaccessible.

Here Tolstoy seems to be saying pretty much the opposite to Hughes, arguing that the aim of art is to make an idea accessible, which I read, in my simple way, as “easy” to understand.

I’ve read similar contradictory statements about poetry.

Methinks the difference relates to their ideas about the role of art. Hughes, I suspect, saw art as expanding our experience and, perhaps as a result, leading to new thinking, wheras Tolstoy saw art, I believe, as having a moral purpose. It can’t just be for its own sake. If you see art in those terms it must be comprehensible, eh?

I’d love to know what you think about these two ideas. Are they totally contradictory, or can we encompass them both! I know I’m being somewhat wilfully simple here, but sometimes that is the place to start?

42 thoughts on “On understanding the arts

  1. “I know I’m being somewhat wilfully simple here…’ Ah, Sue, your modesty is enchanting. You certainly made me laugh, because this is a great discussion that you’ve started off in your own unassuming fashion. 🙂

    I believe there are two very general concepts being assessed in these two statements, without each being necessarily limited to one statement or the other. Hughes is talking about the difficulty of a new idea IN ITS OWN TERMS. It is a testament to humankind’s endless questing beyond our immediate concrete circumstances and imperatives that a few of us can isolate new concepts (as ‘shocking’ as they initially are to the rest of us, as Hughes alluded to in the title of his documentary on 20th century literature) before such ideas are passed on and (to some extent) accepted by the rest of us. Tolstoy’s focus, on the other hand, is on the means of articulation of an idea, as encoded by the ‘artist’, between the art-form or ‘work’ and the observer/consumer. You will notice that, in Tolstoy’s estimation, the inevitable communication is paramount, but that he leaves the MEANS of that communication, or the level of difficulty involved in that interpretation, entirely open. He says nothing about how easy or hard it might be, or should be, to divine WHATEVER meaning or significance might ultimately be available from the painting or text or whatever.

    I love it that you open discussions like this. Good on you. 🙂

    • Thanks Glen … I enjoy sharing discussions like this and love that you and others enjoy commenting. Thanks for referring the The shock of the new. I have the book at home – am in the NSW Southern Highlands at present – and did see the documentary, but I love how you’ve articulated his thesis. I must read it again. You’ve identified the different imperatives well … i do think Tolstoy’s statement implies some level of “easiness” in saying that art is to make ideas and feelings comprehensible, but how easy, you’re right, he doesn’t say. It’s all in our individual abilities to comprehend isn’t it?

    • That was my thought as well, and I admire the way you’ve articulated it. The “understood and felt” in Tolstoy doesn’t have to contradict anything in Hughes, whose favourite artists were never hard to comprehend feelingly. Goya’s Black Paintings, which he admired, are not emotionally obscure. The world is shadowy, violence is pervasive, human beings are ugly; you can see all of it quite simply. Trying to fathom your own comprehension of them, “to expand one’s experience,” is, however, something else. The nub of an argument can be clarified for you by a piece of art without the art itself being easy. Geoffrey Hill, one of the poets I like best, is known for being “difficult” (all of the articles that I see about him will have some variation on that sentence) but a simple, felt comprehension is right there for you.

      “Pitched high above the shallows of the sea
      lone bells in gritty belfries do not ring
      but coil a far and inward echoing
      out of the air that thrums.”

      It’s not hard to feel something from that, not hard to imagine that some idea about England (the bells are in England) is being proposed and answered, but if you go on to the next question — “What is that idea? What is this answer?” — then you have come to the difficult part.

      Hill’s own response to a Paris Review interviewer who asked him how he felt about difficult art was partly this: “One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. “

      • Ah yes, DKS. I agree with you. I’ve often read something and “felt” the tone and sense but as soon as I’ve tried to articulate it, have become tongue-tied. That final statement of Hill’s makes sense to me – and I would certainly agree that art has a “right” to be difficult. I felt Hughes was saying more than that, though, I thought he was saying that all quality art is not easy to understand (meaning therefore that all quality art has some level of difficulty) because if it’s easy to understand then it’s not offering us anything new (i.e. not expanding us)?

        And, I read Tolstoy, as saying that the business of art is to make accessible and comprehensible the ideas/arguments it is communicating (i.e. the ideas/arguments it wants us to understand and feel)?

        I do see some dichotomy between the two, though they might cross over a little.

        • Hughes seems to be saying that a “quality” work has something in reserve, something that asks to be confronted — which is in character for him; he was always opposed to the Koons-sensibility that ian darling mentions below — always in opposition to Pop Art, which was so upfront with its promises about ease and surface. “Quality” art, in his assessment, is slow art. Pop Art is fast art. Fast Art is also easier to sell. Difficult art resists the market until the form of its difficulty has been broken down into signs that can be disseminated. It’s easy now to be a bad Abstract Expressionist. The emotional slash, the mark that ends in a drip: it’s all there for you to mimic.

          I’d agree with that assessment of Tolstoy’s meaning, and I’d argue that his last novel, Resurrection, is a good example of the dangers in that line of thinking. How does an artist manage the balance between art as argument and art as mystery? (For anyone reading this who hasn’t been to the end of that book: the lead character often stops to hold Tolstoyan arguments with himself, and the “danger” I saw, while I saw reading it, was that it would turn into a self-agreeing self-dialogue with bits of action sandwiched here and there like offhand prompts.)

      • Great input, Pykk. “Tyranny requires simplification”…yes; there’s never much nuance or texture in propaganda, is there? It’s good to be reminded. “Difficult art resists the market”, and also the capitalist model of ‘selling’ as much of whatever’s on offer (commodities, ideas, truths etc.) as quickly as you can. And I haven’t read Resurrection, but your description of it sounds as though Tolstoy turned his fictional business in it into something more like one of Plato’s dialogues.

        • Great continued discussion Pykk/DKS and Glen. I agree with this idea of “confrontation” in art. I am bothered when family/friends/acquaintances don’t like something because it’s not “nice” or “pleasant” or, I suppose, “easy” – whether it be music, small-a art, writing. I get all this – I think it is important to be confronted, and to do that you need to be open to the new and to be prepared to be uncomfortable (mentally, physically, emotionally). It’s difficult, though, isn’t it. There can be an emperor’s new clothes aspect to it: we can like it simply “because” it’s hard and, perhaps, because we have no agreed “measures” for this “new” thing. But, I just don’t agree that this is THE definition of quality. It never hurts to be provocative though – and I suspect that’s what Hughes liked to do.

          As for Tolstoy. I haven’t read this work either but my daughter did a major piece of writing for university on Tolstoy’s later period, and his increasing didacticism was one of the issues she explored.

          My sense is that Hughes has gone a little too far in one direction and the risk in Tolstoy’s statement is that it can go too far in the other.

  2. Hughes focus in ‘The Shock Of The New’ was visual art, not literature. ‘Literature’ was a typo in my previous reply.

  3. I would have to say that I agree more with Tolstoy than Hughes. I think the key for me is that the piece of art must instantly or over time evoke in me an emotional response. There must be an “AH HAH” moment. Take some haiku for example—-there are some haiku that because of their skillful and minimal use use of language immediately tickle the right side of my brain. Then there are other haiku that I cannot understand immediately, but when I understand the symbolism of certain words or the context of the poem, I eventually come to that AH HAH moment. Music is the same for me. I can think of popular songs now and in the past, that because of the arrangement of the notes, immediately evoke a response in my emotional right brain. I think this is what Tolstoy is talking about. Handel’s Messiah is a piece of music which always makes me feel ecstasy and it is nearly impossible to explain this emotional response in words. Of course, if I analyze the chord modulations, the contrapunction, or the skillful incorporation of melody lines to explain WHY I feel ecstatic, then my experience may or may not be greatly enhanced. Therefore, I don’t agree with Hughes that art must initially be difficult to understand, but I do agree that it is possible to achieve an emotional response and an “AH HAH” feeling of appreciation of art forms through study and analysis.

    • Thanks Carolyn … love your use of music and haiku as examples for your response. That’s pretty much how I feel too. “Quality” art is often difficult, for the very reasons Hughes gives and Glen elaborates, but I just don’t see it as an essential defining characteristic. I think for me the “aha” response can be emotional or intellectual – but there has to be an “aha” response, not a “ho-hum” one!

  4. I agree with both Tolstoy and Hughes. Art does give people an emotional response; and the beauty of this is not all will have the same response. Art shouldn’t be difficult as Hughes suggests, but I do think art has to give people something to think about, and maybe even understand.


    • Love you comment, Meg, that “the beauty of this is not all will have the same response”. As most of us seem to be saying art needs to give us something to think about and/or to feel (but not so much feeling of the “sentimental” kind!)

    • I’ve certainly heard this said and I’ve been prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. But seeing as you mention it, I should probably point out for balance that Tolstoy wasn’t without his flaws, either…

    • He did have his moments oh-venerable-one, particularly in his presentation, but I think he did have some useful and interesting things to say. It’s the absolutism of his statement that I don’t really like! He made us stop and think though didn’t he!

      • Me he made stop and think how to give him the finger in a room full of people looking bored. I couldn’t work it out: they were classy people … :-\
        Thank you for not chastising me, Sue: I shouldn’t allow my personal reactions to cause me to be rude on a HIGHLY-respected site ! :-\

  5. I’d like to echo Glen’s thanks that you create the opportunity for these discussions, WG. Thank you! I have to say I’m not mad about the Tolstoy quote because I can think of examples of art (literary, musical, visual) where to make the comparison with an ‘argument’ would miss the point. Where is the argument in Virginia Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’ – just to pick an example out of the air?

    • I might be doing the guy a disservice by saying this, but Tolstoy did have a rather a fondness for teaching/persuading/exhorting, didn’t he?

      • I wonder if both Hughe’s comments and Tolstoy’s have to be taken in context: Hughes might be in defense of difficulty in opposition to a Koons like postmodern sensibility while Tolstoy was arguing for accessibility for arts to reach the masses. I don’t think that Hughes is simply a hidebound elitist and I don’t think that Tolstoy was unconflicted about his ideas on art and literature.

        • Context is all, you’re right Ian. I think I was asking two questions here – what did Hughes and Tolstoy think (and why, perhaps) and what do we think about the topic? By taking these comments out of context, I have been a bit unfair in terms of encouraging us to assess Hughes and Tolstoy, haven’t I?

          Re Tolstoy … from my admittedly little knowledge of him, I understand that he was as you suggest conflicted about “art” over his lifetime, though I think What is art? was his attempt to resolve those conflicts at that time in his life?

        • Orwell’s essay (one of his best) Lear,Tolstoy and the Fool is a terrific discussion about Tolstoy’s apprach to literature.

    • Thanks Dorothy … I do appreciate the willingness to engage in the things I throw out. Your question is a good one, and I love your example. I’d need to read Tolstoy’s whole piece to see what he meant by “argument”. Did he mean it narrowly in terms of a thesis or more broadly in terms of an idea? Do I have the time to commit to reading the work?

  6. Thanks for an incredibly interesting post which has made me think about the reasons why I engage in, and value, ‘the arts’ in its many different forms. Having not really thought about this before, I’m surprised to find that I have different reasons for different forms, but need to spend some more time thinking about it before reaching any conclusions (might be an idea for a blog post!) On the two statements you focus on, I don’t see them as opposing, but think that at their core both see the value in art as a vehicle for change – to people’s understanding and view of the world.

  7. Interesting discussion Sue and my first thoughts were along the lines of what Ian said, with regard to audience/context. Often I think the most effective works are those that drag us in quickly so that we become submerged, then carry us along requiring abandon and leaving us spinning a little, perhaps more lucid.
    I do think that ‘difficulty’ can also be simply the author’s style, in some cases, not a thought or devised thing.

    • Yes, interesting point, Catherine, about “style”. I suspect style is tied up a little in what both of them are saying, though I agree it doesn’t have to be and can be divorced from the thought or idea. Sometimes the thought or idea might be old but a new style (which can translate into “difficult” just because it is new and unfamiliar) can force us to think again about that thought or idea, to see it perhaps in a different way? Would Hughes see that as expanding our experience? An old idea – like, say, forgiveness – viewed afresh?

      I can feel myself getting bogged down …

  8. You’ve sparked quite a discussion here! What fun!

    I think part of what you are getting at with your questions is should we as readers/viewers/consumers of art be made to work in some way and if so, how much? Or should we be allowed to be passive in the whole experience? I suppose the answer all depends on what you want your art to do. If I want to just be entertained, I don’t want to have to do much work. Those tend to be easily forgettable experiences. If I want an experience I will remember, that I might gain insight or new understanding from, then I expect to have to work, to participate with the author in the creation of the piece and not sit passively while the author spoon feeds me the “answers.”

    • Thanks Stefanie. Yes! I agree that from our point of view that is the major part of it – what do we users want art to do. Pretty much all our reactions come down to that one point, don’t they? And that’s why readers might shift between “beach reads” and, say Joyce or Pynchon. Let the theorists try to define “art” while we consumers can choose the right art, the right about of “work” or “challenge” for the right moment for us.

  9. Eimear McBride’s ‘A Girl is a Half-formed Thing’ seems to me a good example of a ‘difficult’ contemporary novel which is worth the effort. The difficulties of MBride’s syntax and prose rhythms are obvious, but once you get inside them – or once I did, as a reader, I found the emotional content painful, but not hard to understand, and I came away from the experience feeling that nothing had been made wilfully obscure. I don’t know if this novel would fit the Hughes quote or not. (And I also don’t blame those who tried to get inside the book and then gave up.)

    • I love this example Dorothy. Like you I don’t know whether it would fit Hughes’ statement but I agree with your description of it. I think this is a case of a writer trying a different style to get at the heart of an experience that in itself isn’t really new (what is new, I think we could ask?). She uses a different style to force/encourage us to see/feel that experience anew. Style, meaning and intent are so closely integrated, aren’t they?

      Is seeing or feeling an experience anew, expanding our experience in Hughes’ terms? I suppose it could be, because I suspect we feel the girl’s pain differently (more intensely, might be the difference here) from how we have probably felt or seen it in other stories on a similar theme.

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