I am sure I am not the first person to point out that Art (with a capital A) cannot be truly understood by only taking into account the artist and their work. It is surely obvious that no one single artist can be expected to master all forms of Art, be it music, writing, dance, fine art, film, photography, performance art, theatre, poetry, or even controversial inclusions to the panoply of Art such as stand-up or video games. Why, therefore, is the audience, reader or viewer of Art so roundly ignored?
A certain little known and even less understood musical iconoclast was no doubt showing a rare moment of sincerity when he declared ‘Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is the best!’. But why is music, in his well-informed opinion, the best? And for whom is that the case? Is it possible or desirable to assign hierarchies or is the temptation for snobbery and conceit too great? It seems likely that everyone who is musically talented would argue that music is indeed the best, feel rather content in their collective decision and then having established that music is the best, erupt into petty infighting over what constitutes the best music, and so on and so forth.
So what am I getting at here? It seems to me that the way a piece of Art is received by an individual is going to depend not only on the quality of the art-work, but also the mental competencies of the individual. Research into learning difficulties is revealing an ever greater knowledge of Neurodiversity and how the way one person’s brain deciphers the torrent of stimuli that comes pouring in though our various sensory mechanisms can be very different to another person’s process. And so when I read a book, for example, it does not matter so much that I am bad at imagining how the world the author is describing looks, because I am still able to emotionally connect with the characters through the words if the plot and style are up to snuff, which I would argue is far more important, for me at least. On the other hand more visual forms of art such as dance are harder for me to appreciate. Since dance relies on being able to detect and comprehend minutiae of body language and movement (not to mention the choreography as a whole) all I can really do is sit back and try to enjoy the music whilst oo-ing and ahh-ing at the more acrobatic elements of the display. As for art galleries, well I might as well be Wayne Rooney at an antiques show for all the value I get out of it.
However, since I’m not an idiot, I don’t immediately rush to the conclusion that fine art is a load of rubbish. This is why it annoys me so much when some middle-aged reactionary (likely Tory) has the bald-faced arrogance to take the view that, since it’s not Monet, all modern art is hideous and Turner prize winners should be burnt at the stake. Any Art historian worth their salt would tell you that the impressionists faced the same ignorant attitudes when they started too. No, the reason I don’t like fine art very much is not because fine art is bad, but because I’m bad at appreciating fine art. Learn the difference!
Some forms of Art are ‘pure’. They only really rely on one mental faculty. Music and fine art are two such examples. However, most Art is in some sense ‘composite’. Film is the most thoroughly composite of the lot. You may point out that film is no more composite than theatre or video games, and in a sense you’d be correct. However, with film, the director is king. He can do as many takes as he likes and fiddle in post-production as much as time and budget allow in order to realise his artistic vision. In theatre the director is to a greater extent at the mercy of his actors, and in video games, the designer can only ever include as much complexity as he can expect the player to manage.
‘Purer’ Arts therefore ask more of their audience. The perfection of the Art, if you will, is only ever in relation to the perception of the audience in the realm of the artwork. If music’s not for you, you’re not ever going to get more than fleeting entertainment from it. Film, on the other hand, well, what’s not to like? Film has something for everyone as it operates in almost every realm of perception. This is reflected in the fact that I have rarely met somebody who flatly dislikes going to the pictures; Spielberg has a universality of acceptance that poor old Van Gogh could only dream of. If I go to see a film, what matters most to me and my enjoyment is the narrative, the pacing, the dialogue, the musical score and the overarching political philosophy of the piece. The person sitting next to me might only be interested in the visual style and the quality of the acting. Broadly speaking, the strengths of the film in one area will likely allow us to forgive it in another. Can I be expected to concentrate on everything at once as I would be expected to give my entire attention to a piece of music? Of course not.
If (as you should) you accept that there is a definite skill in the act of experiencing Art (that is, the ability to see Art as more than just some kind of meaningless titillation), then you will see that ‘Purer’ Arts demand more from their audience than the ‘composite’ ones. Indeed, a writer can only express themselves with their words, they have much less to work with than composite artists. Similarly a level of emotional and analytical intelligence is assumed of a reader, proportional to the skill of the author. In the (very rare but very real) occasions that Art has provoked in me a transcendental euphoria is whilst listening to the works of the aforementioned musical frontiersman. I like to think this shows in part a level of compatibility in Neurodiversity between artist and audience.
So maybe, since the work required from both artist and audience is so great, and since the payoff can be so overwhelming, we should consider such forms of Art to be ‘high art’ and the soft, easy, lazy movie-business, infected as it is with what Marx would call commodification, as ‘low art’. Maybe. Should we? Or is this precisely the kind of snobbery I try so hard to avoid? William Blake once said ‘Degrade first the arts if you’d mankind degrade’.
Sure the imperfections of the audience may give greater leeway for imperfection in the artwork if that artwork is a composite one. But is there not also the possibility that composite Art may magnify the effect of its constituent parts? Is film greater than the sum of its parts and hence truly the highest form of Art? I don’t claim to know.
Did you find this essay thought-provoking? Have I provoked one or two of your thoughts? Having had these thoughts provoked would you like to express them? Then write it in the comments section below!