Flash Points

Difficulty, Part 1: Deceptive Forms of Simplicity

What if, instead of talking about what makes an artwork controversial, we focused on what makes an artwork difficult?

Difficulty has long functioned as a keyword in poetics and music criticism.  Generally, when a literary critic identifies a poem as “difficult” she makes no value judgment; the word is used to describe the poem’s accessibility (not only in terms of comprehension, but in terms of pleasure as well).  A poem can be hard to read—actively so—and still be very good, and very moving.  A poem can also be “easy,” accessible, and also be formally elegant and deeply compelling. “Easy” poems are sometimes difficult, though, in that they can be so simple that they challenges our sense of what a poem is (William Carlos Williams wrote poems like this).  Similarly, music can be difficult to play, and difficult to listen to—difficulty is part of music’s vocabulary. And, like poems, music can be incredibly simple in its structure and yet be very challenging for the audience (think: John Cage’s 4’33″).

What if, instead of focusing on what makes something controversial, we focused instead on this line between the simple and the difficult? What if we start a conversation about Tony Smith’s Die (1962), for example, with “What makes this hard to talk about?” and “What information do you need in order to ‘get’ this work?” Questions like these help us to understand what lies behind the controversy that certain works leave in their wake.

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Tracey Emin, My Bed (1998) and Tony Smith, Die (1962)

For instance: like Smith’s Die, Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) is controversial because it looks so simple—Emin’s viewers tend to ask “couldn’t I just exhibit my bed?” and wonder why it “counts” as “Art.”  It can be grasped at a glance, but like Die, it also tells stories that can only be accessed via familiarity with its art historical context. Emin’s installation comments on how work by women artists will always be read as personal no matter what they do, so one might as well just exhibit one’s bed. It also, to a certain extent, cites Die.  Smith’s six-foot sculpture deliberately recalls the dimensions of a coffin, and, like a coffin—or a bed—it seems to be waiting for a body (this made it famously challenging for Michael Fried, who found it more “theatrical” than “sculptural” and, for this reason, controversial). You can’t “get” that side of art like this without doing a little work yourself. Even the simplest works, in other words, often contain within them their own forms of difficulty.

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Andy Warhol, Torso (Double) c. 1982

Andy Warhol loved controversy and made work that was labeled “obscene.” His Torso series openly flirts with pornographic convention. It isn’t formally difficult. It’s easy to figure out what’s going on, and it doesn’t demand that much from us—except in the way that it positions the viewer in a homoerotic relation to the image, which is a challenging experience for some. In that sense, its difficulty, and its controversial dimension, is specific to how the viewer feels about looking at the image.

We arrive at the following question: is simplicity itself what makes some work controversial?


  1. Ben Street says:

    I agree about the apparent formal ‘simplicity’ of works like the Smith or the Emin seeming off-putting or even controversial, simply because of the entrenched anxiety about the experience of looking at art (of any period). It’s notable that video installations – whatever they are – are nearly always the most clustered-around places in any modern museum, because the durational experience, inherited from TV and film, is so bound up in our ideas about receiving culture.

    Paintings, sculptures and objects of any period provide us as museum-goers with a bit of a problem: how long are we supposed to look at it? What are we supposed to be getting out of it? (Audioguides help to demarcate the temporal limits of aesthetic experiences). And what seems ‘simple’ seems the most obvious challenge to this. A work like Smith’s ‘Die’ (and other minimalist objects) force a kind of scrutiny that many viewers might find fruitless. (What’s to gain?)

    But I would argue that earlier art has similar trouble; very often an overly historical exhibition, pumped full of wall-texts, diagrams, virtual-reality headsets and actors in Renaissance costumes, can distract from the aesthetic experience, positioning the objects as historical trinkets, rather than conceptual objects. So, I think it comes down to anxiety – anxiety about the experience of art and what you could possibly gain from looking at something. That’s our job as educators.

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  2. Jennifer Doyle says:

    absolutely. i think aggravating this, too, is that many people feel uncomfortable in museums – under surveillance (which, of course, they are!). people worry about having the ‘right’ feeling, the ‘wrong’ feeling… it’s one of the things i really love about emin’s work – it’s so accessible, but on levels not normally ‘appropriate’ in gallery contexts (weeping women, recalling experiences of abuse, abortion, or just plain old romantic dejection).

    and, with works from earlier periods – sometimes people need to be encouraged to just “see” what’s in front of them – to see past those institutional frameworks which often rob works of their earthiness (and their scadalousness, too!)

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  3. Catherine Wagley says:

    I recently heard an archived Bookworm interview w/David Foster Wallace in which he said, “Fiction’s got a very weird and complicated job because part of its job is teach the reader, establish some sort of relationship with the reader, where the reader is willing, on a neurological level, to expend effort, to look hard enough. . .”

    I think that the artist’s job is similar. And, while I tend to assume that simplicity is a good strategy when trying to establish a relationship with a viewer, I wonder if simple work is sometimes dismissed far too quickly. Maybe the visual appearance of complexity (Julie Mehretu’s all-on-the-surface work and Elliot Hundley’s complicated collages come to mind) signals “meaningfulness” more immediately. (Even if, sometimes, the signal is false).

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  4. Ben Street says:

    Yes, Catherine, definitely – it’s the confusion of the form and the content that causes the problem, I think. It looks complicated (Mehretu), therefore it must mean more than something that doesn’t (like the Emin). That’s a function of anxiety, too, a false cultural hierarchy that makes things easier to categorise – the kind of thing that elevates novels above short stories, worthy dramas above comedies, etc.

    I also agree with Jennifer’s point about Emin. There’s an expectation that the feelings evoked by works of art (just as with classical music) must necessarily be elevated, ‘sublime’ ones, which is a cultural assumption that can either be downright off-putting or exclude artists (like Emin and countless others) whose work plays at a gut level (which, of course, a lot of music does too).

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  5. This – the problem of not only emotion, but also storytelling in visual art – is the subject of the book I’ve been writing. It’s really great to get your comments on this topic! My thoughts on difficulty are modeled after George Steiner’s essay “On Difficulty” – a fantastic typology of different forms of poetic difficulty. I’ve been finding it – as well as critical readings of Steiner (on the politics of what kinds of difficulty “count”) really useful for thinking about how works challenge us. It’s a great teaching tool, too.

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  7. Joe Fusaro says:

    Jennifer, your comment, “What if, instead of focusing on what makes something controversial, we focused instead on this line between the simple and the difficult? What if we start a conversation about Tony Smith’s Die (1962), for example, with “What makes this hard to talk about?” and “What information do you need in order to ‘get’ this work?” Questions like these help us to understand what lies behind the controversy….” makes me think about how important it can be to go INTO exhibits with questions and a knowledge about the work in order to more fully experience it.

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