As someone who enjoys a serving or two of obscure art (i.e., film, theater, fiction, painting, music, etc.) as part of my regular diet, I’m amused by the hostility such art still arouses. Friends of mine who don’t really care about art but rather conflate it with entertainment—apparently they make no fundamental distinction, aside from obvious ones of genre, between one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and an episode of The Big Bang Theory—see no reason to work as hard as I do reading some of the books that I tackle, nor do they comprehend why I would sit through a seven-and-a-half hour, langorously-paced black and white Hungarian movie.
And that’s OK. I get it. I wouldn’t ask them to endure something they don’t want to endure. Still, while I don’t think difficult art is necessarily superior to art that isn’t, if those friends don’t want to make it hard on themselves every once in a while when engaging with art, it’s their loss as far as I’m concerned.
However, it’s the people who make claims against difficult art on socio-political grounds that drive me nuts. They’re the ones who declare that difficult art is elitist because it’s difficult, perhaps requiring some understanding of art or literature not immediately possessed by those who don’t have the time or inclination—usually the former is another way of stating the latter—to obtain such an understanding. Supposedly, art that is not immediately understood, that one cannot get with one lazy-eyed glance, is complicit in maintaining a status quo where the rich are getting richer and the poor get drunk.
Nonsense. There have been enough politically radical theorists who have argued in favor of challenging aesthetics that I don’t feel compelled to rehearse them here. Rather, I want to describe an experience I had at Open Eye Figure Theatre in Minneapolis this past November. I had seen, just a few nights before, The Clumsy Man, Open Eye’s subjective, stream-of-consciousness biography of Hans Christian Andersen, which I came to understand, as one startling image after another unfolded on stage, was told from the inside out.
However, that night I hadn’t quite perceived how I’d come to see what was going on in The Clumsy Man. That occurred several nights later, when I was attending Rinde Eckert’s one-man show An Idiot Divine, which Open Eye was hosting. As Eckert’s show began, we saw a man playing an accordion, telling us of his complicated relationship with his brother, and I kept asking myself why he was telling us this. That is, I strained to discern the plot. I wasn’t having much luck. Though the piece was clearly narrative, its point was lost on me, and I was getting a bit frustrated.
Then came the moment I unhooked my mind, so to speak. Rather than try to figure out what I was seeing and hearing, I just saw and heard. Suddenly, the piece came into focus; motifs were there once I simply paid attention to them rather than thinking about them so hard. I realized how the opacity of the piece was freeing, how, because I understood that I couldn’t see past its surface, I only had to stay with what surfaced. I didn’t have to look for anything else. It was all right there in front of me. It was because the piece was difficult, because it resisted interpretation, that it was actually easy to watch. All I had to do was be attentive to what was actually happening, not to what I wanted it to be or what I thought it was. It’s something that all of us could do a bit more often in our lives, something that would lessen the weight of the world, even if by only a sigh.