I read a post on an artist group page recently that wondered what was wrong with modern conceptual art. The video that was used to spark discussion had a commentator that said that it was all crap, and showed recent examples to prove his point, some of which was in fact fecal matter. No, I’m not being euphemistic. It was actual fecal matter, used as “art” and hanging in a museum. There were other examples that were equally bizarre and unsettling.
What I found most interesting is that the people who commented in defense of the “art” said that at least it provoked a reaction. To them, simply making someone react was proof that the artist had done a good job.
The issue is, however, that the reaction isn’t a healthy one, or one that inspires. It is a reaction of confusion (what is the artist trying to say?), or anger (how did this random paint smear get into a museum/get bought for a million dollars?).
Perhaps the reason so many people like modern conceptual art is because it reminds them of their own feelings. It is “misery loves company”. People like things that remind them of who they are. Deep down they must be very lost and confused and broken. Therefore they like art that is also lost and confused and broken. This art is a reflection of a feeling of loss, of anger, of destruction, of violence, of hopelessness. This art tries to show us how meaningless our existence is, how random, how pointless.
Madeline L’Engle, the author of the “Wrinkle in Time” series, said that art should elevate and make us feel better. This does not mean that it should be used as a palliative agent to make us feel better when all hope is lost. Rather, art should point the way out of the bad situation. Art should remind us of our inner strength and point us towards hope.
Art that is purely used to express rage and destruction and violence and anger can be useful as a catharsis. It can be a way to get out those feelings rather than letting them bottle up inside. It can tell other people that it is safe to have and express those feelings. But the problem occurs when we get stuck there with that kind of art, when we are only shown the darkness of the world or ourselves.
At that point we are idolizing pain. We are making a fetish of our failure. We are saying that loss and destruction is our lot in life and where we must stay.
There must be another way. Art should be a rope ladder rather than a noose. Art should inspire and encourage and enlighten in the truest sense of the word. It should shed light on a dark situation and reach that small part of ourselves that wants healing, that knows how to heal.
Rather than being a passive thing where we expect others to save us or heal us or help us, art should remind us of our own inner healing nature. It should be a map to the center of our being that shows us how to get out of the hole we are in.
Art that is only about loss and violence and anger cheats us, because it speaks only to itself and does not point beyond.
Consider this – poetry that is purely descriptive, that details for us what is right now isn’t poetry. It is merely a news story written in verse form. True poetry elevates and points beyond itself and hints to other and greater things. True poetry guides us back to the best parts of ourselves. Likewise, art that only shows the ugly side of life is not art. It is a photograph that happens to use paint or collage.
True poetry, like true art, can speak about the horrors of life, but to make it poetry or art, it has to show us a way out of it. Art and poetry have to be doors that are open. They show us that while we are on one side of the door, there is a way out of it to another place.