The Case for Embracing Uncertainty in Art
Ben Eastham on the Value of Bewilderment
“Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts,” wrote John Ruskin, “the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art.” Which begs the question: what does the book of contemporary art tell us about the society in which we live today? How should you read it and who gets to write it?
These questions came to mind when, on my first assignment as an art critic, I watched a naked man climb slowly onto a jet engine. Once he had reached his perch and assumed the pose of Rodin’s The Thinker, a curator explained to the press gathered around the jet that this performance signified England’s retreat into post-industrial nostalgia. The nude redoubled his attempts to look nostalgic while, beneath him, several critics nodded to signal that this only confirmed what they had already intuited. I raised my pen to announce to my competitors the imminent arrival of a brilliant critical insight and, when it failed to appear, was reduced to sketching a cartoon penis into my notebook.
There was more of this in the exhibition: a stack of tightly rolled hotel towels alluding, we were told, to the international art world’s fantastically high carbon footprint; battered computer hard drives highlighting China’s exploitation of Africa’s natural resources. I had no idea what to make of all this and so, when the press preview came to an end, was eager to dodge the mingling over coffee and pastries for fear of being caught out in conversation by someone who did. Having pocketed a miniature croissant, my escape was thwarted when I bumped into the arts correspondent of a national newspaper rolling a cigarette at the door.
I said sorry and then, in the hope of gleaning some idea I could plagiarize for my own review, asked him what he made of the show.
“No fucking idea,” he replied. “Who are you?” I told him my name.
He patted his pockets for a lighter, found it, cupped the flame to his lips. “I liked it, though,” he said. Then, after a pause, “You?”
Ruskin’s quote continues: “Not one of these books [of a nation’s deeds, words, art] can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.” You don’t have to like what it says, the Victorian art critic tells us, but the book of art does not lie. If it seems that art strayed a few decades ago into illegibility, then it might be that the book doesn’t only document the state of nations but predicts them.
Because the stories that have shaped western societies since the fall of the Berlin Wall seem recently to have broken down: it is no longer possible to assume the “end of history” through the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy, free-market capitalism and human rights-based law. Financial crises, mass migrations, global pandemics and environmental catastrophes have, what’s more, revealed the systems governing our lives to be complicated beyond the comprehension of even those tasked with managing them. From the ex-chairman of the US Federal Reserve conceding that the subprime mortgage crisis had undermined his basic faith in “the way the world works,” to scientists reiterating that the global ecosystem is so entangled that the local effects of climate change cannot accurately be foreseen, or world leaders being forced by an unruly strand of ribonucleic acid to incarcerate whole populations, the old authorities appear to have lost control of the narrative.
The effects are exacerbated by our access to unprecedented amounts of data while remaining unschooled in how to filter it. We are drowning in information that we are no longer able to organize into easily comprehensible stories. Disbarred from conversations we are told are beyond us, it’s not surprising that so many succumb to scapegoating and the seductions of populists who abuse “plain” speech and appeal to “simpler” pasts. There is a prevailing sense, in the west, of the thread that binds communities together having unravelled.
It is a staple criticism of contemporary art that it, too, has lost the plot. In the past couple of years I have attended a seven-hour-recital of a looping two-and-half-minute passage from Franz Schubert’s “An die Musik”; travelled via virtual reality simulation to the surface of the moon not once but twice; watched an opera about climate change set on an artificial beach in an Italian military complex; taken a lesson in Sinhalese at a Manchester museum; and chaired a discussion about a video set in a Silicon Valley dystopia featuring a transgender dancer who brings Ayn Rand to climax. That all of these events have been framed as art could be taken as evidence that the term has lost all meaning, or that it has become so highly coded as to be indecipherable to anyone without a specialist education. It’s easy to imagine eyes rolling, but I found all of the above experiences in some way moving, memorable or enlightening. New forms of art—going back to Impressionism and beyond—have routinely been dismissed as absurd, the speculation of chancers or the ravings of the deranged. So it is worth asking: what binds together these and other works of contemporary art? And how do they reflect on a complex and chaotic world?
What we call contemporary art is conventionally dated from the late 1960s, when it succeeded modern art, but is better understood as a style than an era. Where movements have historically been defined by shared forms and subjects linked to their sponsors (church, state, merchants), the art of today can only loosely be identified by some common characteristics: it foregrounds ideas over forms and materials; borrows liberally and not always responsibly from disciplines as varied as philosophy, ecology and sociology; is preoccupied by forming connections between disparate ideas and cultures; is sceptical of received wisdoms; takes place in a globalized world; is, to quote Marshall McLuhan, “whatever you can get away with” or, to paraphrase Robert Rauschenberg, “whatever I say it is.”
Indeed, it’s easier to conclude that “the only definition of art,” as the American conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth put it, “is art.” Which is another way of saying that art is not a theory, it’s an activity. And, by extension, that art today is less about the formal or aesthetic properties of an object than a way of talking about the intricately entangled, increasingly unstable world in which we live.
All this talk about art being “whatever you make of it” may sound flippant, but was intended to make art more accessible. If art is a conversation about the societies in which we live, then everyone in a democracy is entitled to an opinion and should be free to express it. However, instead of clearing the air, the claim has been harnessed by those with a vested interest in maintaining a mystique around art. This atmosphere has suffocated many early engagements with art, including my own.
As a more or less pretentious teenager in a small town at the turn of the 21st century, I thought of modern and contemporary art as of an exotic animal: I was eager to see it, confident I could recognize it, certain it couldn’t be found in market towns on the Welsh borders. Yet the excitement of visiting museums in Liverpool or London was always tempered by the suspicion that I was getting it wrong. Why did I find Rachel Whiteread’s minimalist sculptures so compelling and Mark Rothko’s paintings so unrewarding? I was bored by paintings that I had expected to prompt some kind of divine revelation and this felt like an indictment of my own irredeemably provincial taste. It was easy to allow that failure to settle into cynicism. Could all these people really be seeing God in blurred fields of black and red? Instead of attending to the work, I drifted into speculations on art and suggestibility.
Two decades on, I can better appreciate the technical accomplishment of Rothko’s paintings and their significance within a history of western art, but they still don’t really do it for me. No doubt in a decade I will break down in tears in front of some Rothko, realize that my previous indifference was a symptom of my own emotional immaturity and regret committing the above sentences to print. But you shouldn’t force it, and you can’t pretend. That these paintings don’t move me now isn’t to deny that they move others and may move a future version of myself. What interests me is the combination of individual personality, wider circumstances and work of art that generates those effects.
I started this essay with the brief conversation with a critic because it offers a way of looking at art. Put bluntly, you sometimes need to acknowledge that you have no fucking idea what you’re looking at. Instead of worrying about not getting it, attend to your feelings and then afterwards try and figure out what catalyzed that reaction. The critic’s admission that he was bewildered was intended, I think, to make me feel comfortable about articulating my own opinion without fearing that this would be held against me. Not understanding is, after all, a precondition of learning something new.Works of art are not fully knowable any more than people are fully knowable.
Indeed, bewilderment has a proud intellectual history. Let’s start, for the sake of variety, with the second-century theologian St Gregory the Illuminator. Credited with curing King Tiridates of the unkingly delusion that he was a boar, Gregory warned that “we make idols of our concepts, but wisdom is born of wonder.” In Against Interpretation (1966), a more familiar source for contemporary art criticism, Susan Sontag argued that we must allow works of art to act on our senses before imposing theoretical constructs upon them (calling, memorably, for “an erotics of art”). Iris Murdoch agreed that not all experience should be reduced to an analytic exercise, arguing that philosophy must accommodate “the smell of the Paris metro or what it is like to hold a mouse in one’s hand.” The great American painter Ed Ruscha summarized this very Proustian idea in a more Californian idiom: a good work of art, he said, provokes the reaction “Huh? Wow!” and a bad one the anticlimactic “Wow! Huh?” In other words, if you can’t make head or tail of a work of art but nonetheless feel something towards it—attraction or repulsion, delight or rage, wonder or confusion—you’re halfway to having a meaningful experience of it. (And a lot closer than anyone who claims to have it all worked out beforehand.)
We should not be intimidated by uncertainty, but embrace it. For while it can be useful to know the names of paintings, their dates and schools, and the biographies of the artists, it is never sufficient. I can identify Beatriz González’s Interior Decoration (1981) at a glance; I can tell you that it is a twenty-meter-long section of screen-printed fabric that hangs from a curtain rail; that it depicts and condemns a corrupt Colombian president and his coterie; can describe the influence of American Pop on its stylized figures even as it critiques the cultural imperialism that Pop seems to celebrate; can speculate on the influence on the artist of radical German and Italian art of the 1970s; can relate the work to art’s political purpose in Latin America. And yet none of this means in any significant sense that I know the painting. If I did, I wouldn’t have had to traipse across the Thames to the Tate Modern to look at it.
This is what we mean, I think, when we say carelessly that a work of art is “timeless.” Not that an artwork encodes some single abiding truth that only a priestly class can discern, but rather that it rewards different interpretations as the world changes around it. I keep returning to González’s work not to experience the same reaction to its patterns and colors, but because I anticipate a different one. As such, it offers a yardstick against which to gauge how I, and the world of which I am a part, have shifted. The “meaning” of a painting, like the “meaning” of the world, emerges through your encounter with it.
A prosaic example: as a moody adolescent I loved the early sculptures of Damien Hirst. I was exhilarated by Mother and Child (Divided) (1993), which preserves the bisected bodies of a cow and her calf in four glass vitrines filled with clear formaldehyde, and A Thousand Years (1990), two glass cages containing a severed cow’s head fed on by maggots which metamorphose into flies before their electrocution by a dangling bug zapper. That I now find Hirst’s works tiresome isn’t because they have changed; it’s because I and the times have. An energetic disregard for taste and tradition that when I was younger and caught up in the sanctioned rebellions of Cool Britannia seemed puckish now feels derivative and, in the context of species extinction and deadly pandemics, ostentatiously cruel. I’d like to talk the works over with my younger self, although I suspect his spiky enthusiasm might win out over my dim disillusion.
I could tell him why Hirst’s work is less politically engaged than his Italian predecessors in Arte Povera, but I doubt such an argument (which he would dismiss as snobbish) would change his mind and I’m not sure it should. I value the potential of a work to prompt new and constructive ways of thinking, he values its challenge to conventions of good taste. I like jazz; he hates jazz. Talking about art, as about any subject that isn’t governed by a written constitution, requires that both parties acknowledge that they might be judging the same thing by different metrics, in the light of personal experiences foreign to the other, and that neither has access to the absolute truth of an artwork: it doesn’t exist.
Because there is no “right” place from which to look at things. The cartoon opposite by the great American abstract painter Ad Reinhardt literalizes this principle: in it, a neatly dressed man is trying to find the correct spot from which to observe an abstract painting. He shuffles in front of, around and behind the canvas, stands on a chair and crawls underneath it, as if the painting were a magic-eye illusion from which a vase and flowers emerges if you squint the right way. A technician holding the painting, irritated by his nervous shuffling about, shouts out some good advice: “It ‘means’ what it ‘does’ to you!”
It’s worth making clear—before I’m accused of reducing the appreciation of art to knee-jerk emotional reaction or radical relativism—that this does not relieve viewers of the responsibility to reflect on why the work does what it does to them. Quite the opposite: self-interrogation, which is a step in the direction of self-knowledge, seems to me pretty much the whole point of looking at art. Why does this jumble of shapes and colors make me feel happy or alienated or seen? What does the response reveal of my own (unexamined) prejudices, my own state of mind? If you are charmed by a video work which collages together clips of cats playing on the piano, or irritated by a stack of broken televisions, or thrilled by a 19th-century painting of an idyllic landscape, what does that tell you about yourself in relation to the society that sees fit to put those works in museums?
Returning to that chance encounter with the art critic, I wish I could say that I admitted to having no idea what was going on either, and that we decamped to a pub to discuss what jet engines mean to us (symbols of industrial might or catalysts of environmental catastrophe?) and why. But, in truth, I said something closer to, “Yeah, it seemed to me that the underlying conceptual frameworks were interesting, but that the choreography of the space was mishandled,” which is just the kind of nonsense that bad critics deliver when attempting to scaffold pure wind. Recognizing that I wanted to cut the conversation short, the critic shrugged and trained his attention on the floor while I scurried off shamefacedly in the hope that he wouldn’t remember my name (he didn’t).
The people who are really good at making, curating and writing about art are those who are willing to acknowledge their own ignorance. I don’t mean that all critics, art historians and curators are bluffers, nor that artists are setting out deliberately to make impenetrable work (some of them do it by accident). Nor do I mean that there is no “good” or “bad” art: an afternoon at a contemporary art fair would disabuse anyone of that idea. I mean only that every discipline based on enquiry depends on the study of things that its specialists can’t explain away. Good art has always raised difficult questions, offended taste and challenged established categories.
So we should resist the urge to box a work of art into a school, movement or style and in doing so to identify it by its category rather than on its own terms. This seems to me an ethical principle, because works of art are not fully knowable any more than people are fully knowable. I often think of a scene in Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963). A film theorist brought in to advise the director on his script laments “the ambiguity, the confusion” of a story which, because it is based on the director’s own life, lacks “a clear philosophy.” But the joke is on the theorist: neither art nor people are reducible to “a clear philosophy.”
If the meaning of a work of art is shaped by the circumstances in which it is received as well as those in which it was made—look at a painting like Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656), for instance, and see how what it means is renegotiated by each new generation of viewers—then reading the book of art, following Ruskin, also helps us to understand ourselves and others. In contemporary Britain, looking at art offers an opportunity to talk (at the safety of one remove) about who we are individually and collectively, how those identities are shaped and on what stories they are founded.
Those conversations take place in galleries and museums, between works of art from different eras and places, and people with diverse opinions. And so, thinking about how to introduce the idea of art as an open and ongoing conversation, I imagined the rest of this essay as an art museum through which I would walk the reader. This project was made unexpectedly timely by a global health emergency that suddenly made it impossible to trip to the Tate or to any other museum, forcing us all to retreat into the stacks and storerooms of our memories.
It transpired that my mind is a shambles, and so my imaginary museum is not structured as its bricks-and-mortar equivalents must be. Instead of such practicalities as load-bearing walls and Euclidean dimensions, this institution is riddled with secret passageways and trapdoors. There are moving walls and hidden floors, and the interior observes a flexible relationship to time and space. Like my mind, the museum is full of people, some of whom are welcome and some of whom are not.
From The Imaginary Museum by Ben Eastham. Used with the permission of TLS Books. Copyright © 2020 by Ben Eastham.