A partial list of categories about which rigid thinking routinely gets us into trouble:
- high art/low art
- girl friend/girlfriend
But I also worried. As a museumgoer who happens to enjoy abstract modernism over perhaps all else, I fear that I might come off to those who complain about not understanding, getting, grokking the work that I regard myself as having successfully grasped it, having incisively Gotten To The Bottom Of It, where all the appreciation lies. This is not the case. As with the best narratives, song lyrics and publicity stunts, I find that the most enjoyable visual art is not, in any final sense, graspable. It has no Bottom to Get To.
Permit me to re-quote Jonathan Jones, as his relevant observation merits many more quotings than even I plan to provide:
The easier it is to say what a work is about, the less interesting that work becomes. The greatest art takes a lifetime to understand; the slightest takes a moment. And if it really is reducible to an explicit message, is it actually art at all?It seems obvious to me — dangerously obvious, almost — that an artist, or most any class of creator, wouldn't want to simply dream up a message, encode it in layer upon layer of obfuscation and thrust it onto an uncomprehending public for the grappling-with. Infinitely better, though infinitely harder, to craft a work with just the right pitch of ambiguity that gives it as many meanings as it has viewers, listeners, readers.
Yet I've never mustered the courage to tell this to my fellow Steely Dan aficionados, nor to any observers of anything who insist on determining precisely what a work is "about," or, more hubristically, what a work "is." The procedure of figuring out what a work is appears to be nothing more than the identification of a category or of categories to slot it into that no further thought will be required. Permit me to now re-quote Doris Lessing:
I wrote a story, The Fifth Child, which was at once pigeonholed as being about the Palestinian problem, genetic research, feminism, anti-Semitism and so on.My third re-quote is, naturally, of Douglas Adams, responding to someone who asked for the "message" of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
A journalist from France walked into my living room and before she had even sat down said, “Of course The Fifth Child is about AIDS.”
An effective conversation stopper, I assure you. But what is interesting is the habit of mind that has to analyze a literary work like this. If you say, “Had I wanted to write about AIDS or the Palestinian problem I would have written a pamphlet,” you tend to get baffled stares.
No message. If I'd wanted to write a message I'd have written a message. I wrote a book.I have thought, written and bitched about this much before, but I hadn't considered the categorization angle. If you can categorize a work as "a story about AIDS" or "a series cautioning against the tyranny of bureaucracy" or "a song about Owsley Stanley," you feel satisfyingly "done." You have received the "I know what this is" impulse, as if you had resolved the shape of a distant sweet fruit or vicious cat on the savannah, and thus completed your task. But you're probably wrong, or at least missing out on the work's interestingness.
Hence my high enjoyment of my csn-prompted Friday visit to Los Angeles's Museum of Jurassic Technology. Here is a museum that eschews all categories, presenting an experience that's almost literally indescribable. Fact mingles with fiction, past with present, representation with abstraction, metaphor with the concrete, high with low, narrative with nonnarrative, experimental with conventional, outsider with insider, clarity with opacity. In its face, all conventional museumgoing practices fail, forcing the visitor to kiss the "I know what this is" impulse goodbye, at least for a few hours. Plus, their gift shop stocks almost every available Andrei Tarkovsky film on DVD, so hey.
To round things out with a fourth re-quote, I come to a man known for his repudiation of excessive categorical thinking, Mr. Alan Watts:
If you weren't thinking, you wouldn't notice the passage of time, and as a matter of fact, far from being boring, the world when looked at without chatter becomes amazingly interesting. The most ordinary sights and sounds and smells, the texture of shadows on the floor in front of you. All these things, without being named, and saying 'that's a shadow, that's red, that's brown, that's somebody's foot.' When you don't name things anymore, you start seeing them.So it's not as if I understand the art I enjoy most — I just avoid burning mental bandwidth by fruitlessly trying to fit it into more categories than it actually fits into. I should extend this habit of mind, this awareness of the danger of what I'll call "category dependency" (though that sounds like the name of a concept some social scientist already invented), to non-art stuff as well, leaving aside the fraught question of what, exactly, constitutes "non-art stuff" for another day.
One example might be the very way that one leads and constructs one's life. It's an area where I've been ultra-category dependent in the past, and I'd be surprised to meet anyone who hasn't. Remember the questions you faced as a kid about what you wanted to be in adulthood, and how responding felt like picking from a limited, predefined list: doctor, policeman, fireman, butcher, baker, what have you. This illusion seems to persist for many well into adulthood — hell, well into death. When I think about what I want to do now or in the future, my impulse is to put it in terms of other people. If I refer to a career that's "one quarter Werner Herzog, one quarter Charlie Rose, one quarter Brian Eno and one quarter David Foster Wallace," it's descriptive in one way but probably quite suboptimal communication in another. If you're imitating someone who's come before, after all, your greatest possible victory is to come in second. Why bother?
I've realized that charting one's own course in terms of other, previously-charted courses hurts as much as it helps. As much as claiming that you're working toward becoming like Joe Icon satisfies others' questions about your slightly unconventional aspirations, it's no recipe for originality. It certainly does you the dishonor of expressing no bolder goal than slotting yourself into a category, albeit a small one defined by an individual rather than a large one defined by an industry. Some people — a lot of people, myself included — get spooked when they lack an example to which to adhere. Sometimes they even discard their ambitions for lack of a predecessor. I'm considering adding "avoid adherence" to my list of heuristics.