The unfortunate exclusivity of art

I watched Brideshead Revisited a few days ago. A pretty uninspiring movie, but there was a lovely bit where Cordelia abruptly asks Charles, a semi-famous painter and protagonist of the story:

“Modern Art is all bosh, isn’t it?”

“Great bosh.”

“Oh, I’m so glad. I had an argument with one of our nuns and she said we shouldn’t try and criticize what we didn’t understand. Now I shall tell her I have had it straight from a real artist, and snubs to her.”

Charles, at this point in the story, couldn’t care less about modern art. He dances—a pale teenage girl draped limply in his arms—with his eyes sternly fixed on his childhood lover, Sebastian, who is rapidly hurtling towards oblivion under an unholy trinity of vices: sexuality, religion, and guilt.

But it’s a question I’ve heard (and asked!) many times. Most often when faced with piece of Kandinsky, Pollock, or Emin – or something one of my Goldsmiths colleagues might have knocked up.

Most art is impossibly impenetrable. But it’s nothing new or modern.

If—at some tedious dinner party, or in the process of chatting up a particularly aloof guy—I had to pick a favourite genre of art, I would probably go for the Pre-Raphaelites1.

There’s something about the mixture of idealised medieval fantasy and almost photorealistic rendering, that makes the whole thing very interesting to me. I like most of the art for how it looks rather than what it means – and perhaps that’s why I like Pre-Raphaelite art. You can just look at it, without any context or explanation, and get something out of it (my Mum calls this the “wallpaper” effect).

But every now and then, there’s a useful little summary next to a painting, and like a key in a lock, the whole thing starts to make sense.

Earlier this year, when I visited the Lady Lever art gallery in Port Sunlight, this painting by John William Waterhouse grabbed my attention:

I think it was the woman’s gaze that caught me at first. Who is she, and who’s she with? Is that a look of contentment, confusion, or sadness? She’s in a garden, but she’s not smelling the flowers. She’s not even looking at them. And why, when you look closely, is it snowing outside to the left of this summer garden?

A nearby plaque fills in the gaps: the woman, Dianora, had been vigorously pursued by a chap called Ansaldo, in the red hat to the right. Desperate to git rid of him, she said she’d marry him if he could make a summer garden sprout in the middle of winter. With the help of a magician, he actually manages it, and here we see Dianora, invited by Ansaldo to check his handiwork and seal her fate. The penny has dropped and Dianora finds herself in a predicament. “Having gazed on it,” the source material says, “she went home the saddest woman alive.”2

The Lady Lever curators have been very clever here, though, for this isn’t the whole story. Dianora is a tale within a tale, and to the right hangs a similar painting, by the same artist, titled “The Decameron”:

The Decameron, we’re told by another plaque on the wall, was a 14th Century book containing 100 tales told by a group of young men and women sheltering in a Florentian villa from the Black Death. Ten young people, telling one story each over a period of ten days. Wikipedia calls it a “masterpiece of classical early Italian prose”, supposedly, that went on to inspire Chaucer, Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe, amongst others.

So Waterhouse shows us the young Italians, in the middle of telling the very tale we just saw in the painting to the left: that of doomed Dianora and her unwanted lover. By the end of it all, you’re standing way back on the opposite wall of the Lady Lever hall, taking in both paintings, your eyes darting from one to the other like a spectator at a tennis match. All very cool. Very Inception.

Where was I? So yes, even Pre-Raphaelite art—which prized the plain, simple expression of genuine ideas, and the stripping away of conventions and classical symbolism—even this art has hidden meaning. And of course it does, that’s what makes art worth making.

What really upsets me is when a piece of art has this layer of meaning—has something special to say—but the artist has decided to hide it so deeply, you haven’t a hope of decoding it without insider knowledge. And unlike the examples above, the art, at the surface level, is often so abstract (or abstruse) that you don’t even get the initial “Who is this woman?” moment. You just get… nothing.

It happens in art, sculpture, poetry, even film (Berberian Sound Studio, which my parents watched for the first time this Christmas, is a prime example).

As a designer, I try to imbue two-dimensional images with just the right amount of meaning, clearly stated with a defined purpose, to elicit a response, suggest a behaviour, or market a product. I might use colour theory to suggest an emotion, or typographical theory to emphasise one message over another. But I don’t need my viewer to know any of that. They can interact with my designs, get what they need from them, without studying them or searching for subtext.

Some artists, on the other hand, seem to specifically hide their meanings away. Subtexts become so subtextual, and spread so thinly across an artist’s whole œuvre, you need a trained guide to discover them; they are impossible to discover unaided.

Which, to me, is a great shame. Art is an expression of something that cannot be directly communicated or frozen in time (“an expression of feeling; an expression of love” – Charles from Brideshead, again). Artists clearly expend great effort in picking their subject matter, grappling with its themes, and representing them in a tangled half-invisible web on the canvas.

Why then, after you’ve gone to all that trouble, would you exclude the majority of your audience from understanding what the hell they’re looking at?

It’s as if the agony of not understanding a painting is meant to be part of its appeal. Or that the experience of being “in the know” is what you’re meant to get from an artwork, rather than whatever the artwork itself has to say.

Maybe Cordelia’s nuns were right when they said you shouldn’t criticise what you don’t know. Never let a designer talk about art!

  1. Like most people, I use the term Pre-Raphaelite rather loosely, to include both the original Hunt/Millais/Rossetti works of the 1850s and its later renaissance at the hands of artists like Edward Burne-Jones. Typical Pre-Raphaelite characteristics include intense colours and details, natural shapes and settings, and romantic medieval characters and themes. 

  2. You can find out more about Waterhouse’s two paintings in this brilliant podcast by Sandra Penketh at the Lady Lever Art Gallery