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?