Speaking in Tongues

The best art eludes easy interpretation

As a child, I remember that when some offending item blocked my father’s path as he trundled over the vast rocky terrain of other people’s personal taste – a hideous lawn ornament, say, or news of some exotic foodstuff that would never pass the lips of any self-respecting man from the American Midwest – he would repeat a useful Latin maxim as a form of counsel, or ironic rebuke: De gustibus non est disputandum. ‘In matters of taste, there can be no disputes.’ What revs your motor might not even set mine sputtering, and this makes the world a richer place, full of texture, colour, strangeness and wonder.

However, it seems to me that there is such a thing as good art, full of the aforementioned wonder and the rest of it. On this, perhaps, we can all agree. (I would assume that you, as a reader of this magazine, enjoy art and believe some of it is good, unless you are a masochist. Similarly, you can assume that I, as a writer for said magazine, enjoy art and believe some of it is good as well, despite the fact that you know I am also a masochist, because I am a writer.) Hashing out the nature of this good art, of course, is where things get sticky. However, I would like to propose that all good art, while varying wildly in any number of specific characteristics, nevertheless shares the same mode of address. This mode of address has to do with subjectivity, a meeting between the viewer and a manifestation of a strange intelligence, one that can be as enigmatic, beguiling, funny, stupid, complex, destabilizing, repellent and profound as that of another human being, and often more so. Good art speaks a foreign tongue that it makes you long to understand, however untranslatable its serpentine turns of phrase and idiosyncratic idioms may seem, meaning slipping away like a greased pig through a farm boy’s arms. When you look at it, it looks back at you.

If this sounds a little murky, it’s because it is. After all, if you cross paths with an artwork and find that its reason for exisiting is as clear as the Caribbean waters gliding beneath a billionaire’s boat, it’s a fair bet you’ve found some bad art. I assume you’ve come across its kind before. Perhaps this art came charging at you, red-faced and politically righteous, hoisting high the shrill banner of its message. Maybe it swaggered by, throbbing with sex and stupidity, trailing a tantalizing promise that it could fill the bottomless void in your vitality. Or it could have sidled up to you like a slicked-back stockbroker, assuring you that you were about to strike solid gold. If you were crossing more rarified pastures, it might even have sat you down for a scintillating game of referential chess, where every move helped reassure you both of your mutual cleverness. Whatever its guise, bad art shares a common trait: clarity of purpose. It’ll come right up to you and shake your hand, like any businessman.

Good art is more evasive, its footing less sure. It is afflicted with what the poet John Keats affectionately called ‘negative capability’, insofar as it is ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. It is, in other words, irreducible to the creaky movements of its constituent parts. You could say, for example, that the artist Rachel Harrison’s work is about colliding biomorphic sculpture with ready-made consumer products as a means of updating surrealism to fit our increasingly surreal age. But this would be tantamount to saying that Giorgio Morandi made paintings about bottles. Good art ducks the carefully aimed darts of ‘aboutness’. Its ‘goodness’ can be said to be an emergent property, in the scientific sense: the whole is greater than its constituent parts.

This leads us neatly back to subjectivity, which is an emergent property of a couple of pounds of spongy, slimy matter in our skulls, and which, like art’s goodness, remains maddeningly hard to loop our lassos around. Battalions of our best and brightest are now grinding away on a solution to the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, the mystery of how the spark we call subjecthood emerges from a network of firing neurons. When and if all these hard-working neuroscientists and computer engineers succeed, we can reconvene and have a different conversation. Until then, I would propose that art’s quality can be judged according to the degree to which it recapitulates the drama and mystery of consciousness by different means. Art has the ability to be not merely the product of consciousness, but also its most brightly polished mirror.

Reckoning with a good work of art, in this case, does not require the strenuous acrobatics of interpretation – Susan Sontag’s famous bogeyman, which stalks us still – or involve the gentle caressing of our cherished tastes, or the promise that the open wounds in our wallets or our psyches will be sutured. Rather, it requires something akin to an exercise in empathy, an act of bringing a foreign force into equilibrium with your self, by letting its tendrils creep in and do their work on you. This might not be easy, but good things rarely are.

Chris Wiley is an artist and writer. He acted as an advisor and catalogue writer for ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ at the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013.

Issue 174

First published in Issue 174

October 2015

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