Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Boredom as a Work of Art
I think it was John Cage who said something like "every object hides another." The reason why much new art can bore is because the artist is removing something in order to reveal something behind it. The audience comes to a work of art with a set of expectations, looking for something that they believe the artwork should contain, melody, plot, climax, perspective, figures, humans, harmony, whatever. The history of modern art is filled with stories where these expectations are violated by an artist, who thereby reveals a whole new world of pleasures, and instigates a flurry of investigations into the territory he has discovered/revealed.
If you come to a work looking for something that never comes, you can react with anything from puzzlement to fury, but if the artwork involves duration, (music, film) then it is much more likely that much of your reaction will consist of boredom. The thing is, this boredom often due to the fact that the artist wants to show you something ELSE, a something else that the artist finds interesting/fascinating/enthralling. The good artists are not TRYING to bore you. They are trying to show you something interesting SOMEWHERE ELSE. Boredom is an accidental, and ALWAYS regrettable side-effect produced during the period of initiation/familiarization. (That or art death. But more on that later.)
The idea sounds obvious, but it apparently isn't, judging from the number of times I've heard fellow artists (some of them jawdroppingly brilliant doing what they normally do) tell me that they want to do something new, something that will BORE their audience, wouldn't that be great? I tell them that the deliberate production of boredom is territory that should be reserved for the mediocre and talentless. Boredom is the easiest thing in the world to produce; it's about as rare as vacuum in the universe. How is it that people can actually mistake producing more of it as a good idea? What is it in the logic of our culture that makes it possible for even good artists to contemplate such an act with anticipation? I suspect the following as making up the two premises of a disastrous (and logically fallacious) syllogism:
1) Catholic anhedonia. Pleasure is bad and discomfort is good, or at least more serious.
2) Many boring artworks are praised by critics and historians as serious/brilliant/revolutionary /seminal.
There is a famous illustration that appears in psychology textbooks to illustrate how perception relies on distinguishing foreground from background. It appears to be an extreme closeup of the silhouettes of two people about to kiss. After a while the people become the background and you see the space between them as a wineglass. The notions above are like the silhouettes. The idea "Therefore boredom is high artistic practice" is like the wineglass. It is the what the notions imply.
Criticism and aesthetics are silent on why and how art dies, ie becomes boring. Either it is a non-issue, or it is assumed that the bored person simply lacks the proper education/perspective. I agree that a little background can go a long way to making the boring comprehensible, but the fact must be faced: art can die. The energy an artwork contains for the viewer is a product of energies and cultural tensions/issues that the viewer's milieu have engendered in the viewer. The English director Peter Brook tells of a magical moment in a bombed-out basement in London in the 1940's: a clown on a stage recited the names of dishes he yearned to eat. According to Brook, the clown reduced the starved and rag-swaddled audience to tears. Then the war ended, and grocery lists lost their power to induce lachrymal reactions (in English audiences, anyway). An artwork is a wire between concentrations of social energy. When the distribution of social energies change, the artwork becomes a wire in a vacuum. (This is also the same process by which old art might reacquire power/relevance) Criticism refuses to put the following into words: that although an artwork can galvanize entire generations, that same work can become a boring curiosity. This silence has had the apparent effect of enjoining the viewer to construe the tedium that history deposits around "great works" as content. It is why we confuse creating serious art with creating serious boredom.
PS: The article I mentioned in the last post, in which I wrote about my experiences at the 2006 Ogaki Biennale, is out. The magazine is called MANIFESTO, and features, among other things, a brilliant and outrageously romantic article by Erwin Romulo. The magazine is technically free, but you have to buy a copy of EVO to get it. In theory, anyway. I asked the tindera in Magnet SM about it and she said that the delivery boys had taken her stash of Manifesto back, who knows why. I don't know how they're going to market the next issue, due out "sometime in April." I'll post here when it materializes. I should have an article about Lyle Sacris' short film Self Portrait in it. Cheers!