in Opinion | 01 NOV 07
Featured in
Issue 111

It Ain't Easy

How confusion can be creative

in Opinion | 01 NOV 07

OK, I’m confused about my focus here in this ‘State of the Art’ (which I’m rapidly beginning to realise should be re-titled ‘State of the Mind’) because it’s hard in these confusing times to prioritize one idea over another when, despite the assumption of the popular press that the art world is a monstrous giant with a mad, opulent head, in reality, there is no art world as such, only seemingly infinite art worlds, thus, infinite possible subjects to reflect upon. On the whole, my particular art world is a great place to be, but – and this is putting it mildly – it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, straightforward. Yes, I know this an excuse, and I’ve said it before so I’ll say it again: most people use too many words to say too little, so I should get to the point. But what the point is, is the very point that is plaguing me.

On reflection, the point here might be the need for a discussion about the benefits of confusion itself, which more and more artists seem to be mentioning, or embodying, or making art about lately – whether intentionally or not is a moot point. (Jasper Johns: ‘You have to systematically create confusion, it sets creativity free. Everything that is contradictory creates life.’) Without a doubt though, despite its ubiquity, there is a certain shame associated with it and so I’m going to come clean. I think confusion, in art, in thinking and writing can be, given the right mind and circumstance, a good thing. (I’m not talking here, I hasten to add, about the kind of confusion that cements prejudice or celebrates ignorance or complacence. Who hasn’t ground their teeth at a critic who responds to a show like an accountant over-seeing an audit? Who hasn’t wanted to suggest to an artist who sucks the life-blood out of the creative act that perhaps they’re in the wrong field?) Good confusion prompts change. It can create something new and wonderful. It can be compassionate and fun and cause complications of the good kind. Good confusion throws down a gauntlet to the critic to respond not with deadening explanation but an equivalent imaginative flourish. Good confusion reiterates: art is not a code that neccesarily needs cracking, it’s a liberating proposition.

Coming to any kind of conclusion about anything to do with art, which by its very nature is not a clear-cut discipline, is obviously never a simple task. For example: as I struggle to write this, I’m listening to Captain Beefheart’s song ‘I’m gonna booglarize you baby’ from his genius (there is no other word) album from 1971, The Spotlight Kid. I’m listening to it because, despite the fact the lyrics don’t make much sense (‘the moon was a drip on a dark hood, ‘n they were drivin’ around ‘n around, Vital Willy tol’ Weepin’ Milly I’m gonna booglarize you baby’, etc), it in no way detracts from the sheer breathtaking life-giving blood-pounding infectious inventiveness of the song – quite the opposite, in fact. There’s a great clip on YouTube of Beefheart performing the song that an artist friend sent me the link to. ‘I think Don van Vliet’, my friend wrote, ‘was actually quite unhappy at this point and felt he deserved more mainstream success. I love the super-duper talented musician-freaks. Do you think that 1960s and ’70s radical art and culture is intrinsically linked to the two World Wars happening? I do. But I can’t explain why.’ Here, in a short space, is the intertwining of biography, frustration, creativity, the vagaries of success or a lack of it; a hymn to talent, inspiration; and a query about the relationship of music to history with a big H. In other words, it’s confusion as a question – confusion as the beginning of something.

A few recent conversations illustrate, to varying degrees, what I like to think of as positive confusion.

1) I meet an artist who says that, although he doesn’t regret it, he still feels hot with embarrassment for asking Alex Katz for an autograph. When I ask him why he wanted the autograph in the first place, he says that having a little bit of Alex Katz in his house, for reasons he couldn’t fathom, would make him ‘feel that everything would somehow be OK’. He didn’t specify what he needed to feel OK about and I didn’t pry. However, he did add that despite the embarrassment, the autograph does sit on his mantelpiece, and yes, it does make him feel OK. (This little anecdote reminded me once again that one of the best things about art is that even if you don’t thoroughly understand either its motivations or your own for liking it, you can nonetheless bring the idea of it – which is always an idea of possibility – into your home and live with it, gratis, to mull over. Who cares if the reasoning here is, well, a little bewildered? After all, whoever said the creative act should be logical?)

2) I am in Xiamen in Southern China, in a restaurant called ‘The White House’ which, bizarrely, is a mini version of The White House on Capitol Hill. A young artist I meet has made a film about a madman in a local park, who sings old songs from the Cultural Revolution. When I ask the young artist how he feels about this period of Chinese history, he says he doesn’t want to know about it, it’s all too confusing. All he wants now is the chance to make art about being alive now and, anyway, his parents wouldn’t talk to him about what happened back then. But, he implied, he was open to suggestion.

3) When I return from China I spend a week writing a catalogue essay for a friend. She emails me saying that despite being ‘obsessed with biography’ she realizes that she has no respect for it as a genre. This push-me pull-you attitude to her subject-matter is confusing. After some discussion, however, she tells me that her approach is really ‘a way to accept that representation cannot exist without guilt, desire, ambivalence, ownership.’

4) The other night I get into a conversation with a great painter who tells me that when she makes pictures she likes to think of the famous story about Turner, who apparently strapped himself to the mast of a ship in a storm in order to draw it. To be in the eye of the storm, she says, and to have ideas and images flung at you from all directions; to make images that are layered and difficult, to make images for reasons that even the artist doesn’t entirely understand; to try and react with compassion and imagination to the confusion and contradictory impulses that constitute a life. This, she tells me, is what good art is. And who am I to argue with that?