A Defence of Difficult Art


Wow! To address the elephant in the room, it’s been over half a year since my last post. Calling this slacking off is the understatement of the century!

It’s been a particularly busy half a year; I’ve recently moved and I was suffering from a severe back pain which was preventing me from spending too much additional time in front of the computer (aside from regular work).

And Christ, how the times have changed! We find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic. A recession is looming on the horizon. But I’m generally lucky and have had ample opportunity to keep myself busy, despite everything.

But let’s start with today’s topic – a defence of difficult art!

Why this topic?

This post is a take on an issue which seems to be fairly present in today’s society – a general dislike of all things considered difficult art. That’s not to say that ‘difficult’ art doesn’t have its followers. It certainly does. Nevertheless, there’s a growing number of people who dismiss it out of hand without giving it a chance at all.

Why might that be?

A big portion of it has to do with the general perception that difficult art is elitist. That it is only meant to be for a particular group of people, and that it, as such, goes out of its way to be exclusive, rather than inclusive. Whether or not this adheres to reality doesn’t matter – they dismiss the art.

Consequently, many consider by default those people who enjoy ‘difficult’ art (or even old art, which many consider difficult just by merit of their age, and thus strangeness to a contemporary audience) are pompous or elitist as well (i.e. – ‘you only enjoy it because you feel like you should’).

Furthermore, some artists who create difficult works are often considered elitist as well – as though the difficulty were an inserted aspect with the intention of frightening off a wider, popular audience and hoping for an ‘elite’ audience.

The problems with this perception of difficult art

The issues with this way of thinking are many. First, it obviously bars the individual who is drilled into thinking this way from actually attempting to enjoy such art – it is a great pity since a lot of great art can be difficult when approached the wrong way, but some of these artworks have survived the centuries based on their merits – so dismissing them out of hand is close-minded at best, and arrogant at its worst – if considered under the pretence that it’s not worth engaging with it because it just reinforces a social elite. Difficult contemporary artworks may be lost to the centuries because they are being dismissed without being given a chance.

Worse still, if the insistence on art being easy spreads, then it will necessarily dumb the world of arts down. That’s not to say that only difficult art is great, but that deliberately making it easier will of course strip an artwork of some of its merits since its inherent difficulty is often a by-product of a composition which is dealing with a lot of complex matters at once – dumbing it down will soften the effect and create a worse work of art.

Third, forcefully insisting on easy artworks is extremely condescending to everyone – it creates the claim that the masses aren’t capable of understanding difficult art and that, therefore, they should only be confronted with works which they can comprehend and enjoy in a heartbeat. It’s purely undemocratic and in itself comes from a genuinely elitist position.

The solution to the perception of difficult art?

Discussing an issue in wider society won’t be fixed by merit of a single blog post. However, perhaps reading this will lead to some self-reflection, or if you find yourself engaging with difficult art yourself on a regular basis you may take your time to nudge friends and family gently into the direction of approaching some themselves – some of them may genuinely become interested.

I believe it’s important to acknowledge that in many cases an artwork’s difficulty is merely a result of whatever the artwork requires by its very nature. As such, it should be accepted for what it is – there are countless examples of great artwork which are easy and countless examples of those which are difficult.

In other words, an artwork should be as difficult as it needs to be. The reader/viewer/listener needn’t engage with it (lack of time or interest in the subject matter etc.). However, they should not dismiss it because they seem to be capable of reading the artist’s intentions and judging them to be elitist prats.

Trusting the general readership to be capable of understanding the artwork, and trusting the artist to create something which is as difficult or easy as it needs to be, is democratic. It can be rewarding to the participant who engages in the art. Indeed, with the right approach, I believe anyone can understand any work of art, even if some may take more time.

Closing thoughts

The one thing I didn’t include is examples of artists many people consider elitist. There are quite a few.

In poetry, T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound spring to mind (although many dismiss the latter due to his politics, which I find more justifiable). Closer to contemporary times is Geoffrey Hill, who also made a statement about the democratic nature of difficult poetry. In art, many consider anything born in the wake of modernism difficult. In music, people again see the modernists, or even Wagner before them as difficult. A writer-friend of mine rolled his eyes when someone mentioned Kafka recently!

No, examples abound, and it would be a great pity if their art were lost to the world in a dystopian future in which everyone thinks that difficult works of art – both new and old – hold no value whatsoever and that they think they can dismiss them as elitist nonsense which the world no longer needs.

Do you disagree? Anything interesting to add which I hadn’t thought about? Then why not leave a comment in the comment section below? If you enjoyed this post, why not share it on the social media of your choice? Then click on one of the tender buttons below.