As if to illustrate my point about discourse in modern art, last night PR2 broadcast a report on a mammoth show of modern Polish painting in Warsaw. Its curator spoke long, fast, and using a lot of impressive jargon. Among the pearls of her delivery was a – er – defintion? description? – of painting which went:
“Painting is an means of reflecting on life, on materials in our life, substances which accompany our life; it is a way of ordering nature, understanding social interdependencies and personal relationships; it reflects individual consciousness; it is a reflection of self perception, a way of interacting with the world, of being absorbed by it and absorbing it; one can say therefore that as a discipline, painting is communication-oriented, reality-identity-oriented; in fact one can say that painting is a tradition of constant repetition of the world.”
Now: note that – as per my 7th essay on Thai Matmee – among all the things that modern art critics tell us modern painting is, one thing painting is not is applying pigment to a surface in order to elicit aesthetic rapture.
Indeed, within the four lines of her – description? – the speaker, Mrs S (who was apparently quoting from a highly regarded book by a recently deceased leading Polish art critic, Janusz Jaremowicz) illustrated two other points which my 7th essay on Matmee has suggested about modern art discourse: 1) that it does not pick out the activity it pretends to define (painting is no more “ a way of interacting with the world, of being absorbed by it and absorbing it” than eating bananas is); and that 2) it toys with jargon for the sake of toying with it (“painting is reality-identity-oriented” sounds great but means exactly nothing).
A less charitable commentator – say, Jacques Barzun – might make two further observations about Mrs S’s – expose? – : first that if the high-school pupil is not told that his teacher is outraged by nonsense, that pupil’s education will fail; and that (apparently) the best a renowned Polish modern art critic (e.g. the aforementioned Jaremowicz) can do is slavishly imitate the jargon emanating from America. Not only is Polish painting derivative (as the show illustrates), but so is Polish criticism of it.
Another commentator, perhaps one soaring over Poland like a great spy drone at several thousand meters, might comment further that the only valuable and interesting development in Polish cultural life of the moment is the movement to publish at last in the country the literary works of authors who had written in exile between1939 and 1981, men like Miłosz, Herling-Grudziński, Stempowski, Bobkowski: erudite and polished in the old way, eloquent, but above all autonomously, originally, clearly thinking men. The irony of this development is that these men, all of them born before 1920 and all of them now dead, appear to be just about the only original and interesting voices in Poland today. I am not sure what is more responsible for the devastation of Polish intellectual life: the various ethnic, class, Nazi and communist purges and brain washings over the last century; or the post-independence rush to copy wholesale the New Big Brother in all things. But a devastation it is.
Two words about the works displayed at the show: first, they are nearly every one of them depressingly derivative of their American models (it is not the case that, as the curator claims, X was responding to Y in some sort of creative dialogue; rather, the case is that X was simply knocking off American painter A while Y was knocking off American painter B; any apparent dialogue between X and Y is just that: apparent; a mere shadow of the interaction between A and B, if indeed there was any at all); and, second, that they are nearly all relentlessly ugly: they sport unbalanced compositions with scratchy, messy, unfinished surfaces in either depressingly dull or shocking colors intentionally selected to evoke associations of disease and decomposition. Where figurative elements appear, they seem to suggest physical deformity and/or mental disease. But not all: as if to illustrate how open-minded I am, there were two paintings there I was able to like. Not enough to want to hang them in my bedroom; or to make up for the profound psychological disturbance the visit to the show has caused me; but well enough to claim the point. Clearly, I am not disliking things merely because they are modern or because they are part of the show.
This presents me with a huge intellectual dilemma: is it really possible that the people who produce this stuff and the people who avidly collect it and show it in exhibitions actually like it? I suppose they must, because to assume otherwise would be to call them deluded (somewhat along the lines of The Emperor’s New Clothes). Such an interpretation would not necessarily be theoretically impossible (marketing studies of taste show that most consumers are not sufficiently in touch with their own perceptions to be able to say reliably what they like: this fact allows the 500 billion advertising industry to exist in the first place), but it would be… uncharitable. The charitable view, surely, is to assume that the educated and eloquent people who speak with such conviction (even if with so little purpose) about their likes do know their minds.
But if so, then I am unable to know them; their pleasure is wholly and entirely opaque to me, impenetrable like stone, and the only possible explanation for the gulf that separates their reactions from mine is that we somehow have radically different brains. Because, after all, I am a pretty open-minded fellow. I am neither racist nor agist; I am happy to let gays marry; and let murderers live forever on a life-sentence. My taste in food and clothing is eclectic and my cultural diet is rather more varied than most. Yet, no amount of staring at this stuff makes it more palatable to me; on the contrary, I only grow more uncomfortable with looking. The only explanation for my response I can think of is that I am constitutionally, congenitally prevented from appreciating colors and shapes reminiscent of physical deformity, disease, decay and death.
Which is of course precisely how brain mutations are expected to work: to produce brains which calculate in entirely different, mutually incomprehensible ways. One mutation might well produce a brain capable of understanding topology or the quantum effect; another – a brain which responds with gratifying emotions to the shapes and colors represented at the show in question. Normally, all these mutations would swim together in the population perfectly and imperceptibly intermingled; but apply an asymmetric shock and some might rise to the fore.