Late last night after a concert, I hung out briefly with a group of friends, and among them was a 22-year-old undergrad visual art major who was the niece of one of the members of the group. Extremely precocious and articulate, she was extraordinarily opinionated and repeatedly professed strong disdain for virtually all contemporary art. One salient quote was, “All they do is spit on canvasses; I really resent people who waste my time.”
I was reminded of one of my favorite Public Image Ltd. songs. But rather than my typical stance of accepting the bait and defending the work she was attacking, I decided that for once it might be instructive to just hear her out. So I sat quietly as she proceeded to denounce art charlatans who have the nerve to sell work which clearly has no artistic value for tons of money, etc.
However, I have not been able to put the downright anger she felt in response to contemporary art out of my mind. How would she react to the stuff we call new music? Music is a time-based medium; therefore it would be even easier for someone to be angry about having to listen to any music he or she felt was unworthy. It is potentially a much more significant waste of time than looking at a work of visual art which can be done superficially in a matter of seconds.
On a gut emotional level, it’s difficult for me to comprehend anyone being angry with someone who creates art even if I am incapable of personally responding to it. Even if an artist—whatever the medium—only appeals to a small audience, the processes of creating and experiencing art seem to be among the few morally unassailable human activities. So, on a purely intellectual level, it’s easy to dismiss this woman’s tirade as, well, a tirade.
Yet with the debate still raging back and forth over Mark N. Grant’s polemical assertion that beauty is a wallflower in modernist and postmodernist aesthetics, the stance of this 22-year-old hits a nerve. I honestly hear beauty in an extremely wide variety of music, including numerous compositions that others have deemed gnarly and even unlistenable. I also know quite a few people who are unable to get past their boredom with music or art which adheres to past conventions of beauty. Beauty is indeed in the eyes and ears of individual beholders, which is why I’ve never given opinions, even my own, all that much credence. That said, what can we do to encourage potential audiences to be open to a wider range of aesthetic possibilities?