When in the presence of challenging art, the proclamation, “I don’t get it!” is often on the lips of some flustered viewer or another, and even lurks quietly, fearfully from time to time in the fact-addled heads of those formally educated in theory and criticism. If a piece doesn’t serve its ‘purpose’ of being beautiful, this confused reaction is especially likely.
Not getting it is often felt disparagingly, and so, too, the art becomes marred by its brush with incomprehensibility. However, those moments of feeling clueless and perhaps slightly disturbed in a state of un-knowing are extremely valuable and powerful experiences.
How so? Allow me to explain. If I write to you about a table I’m sitting at, it is merely one example of the many, many surfaces in the world that fall under the category ‘table.’ The hat I’m wearing, just another piece of headgear. Your pair of jeans? Just a blue drop in a denim ocean.
More often than not the items we encounter can be nestled nicely into our ‘library’ of familiar concepts. A piece of felt perched atop someone’s cranium, ah, that must be a hat. Our notions of concrete objects rarely change, as rarely as the objects themselves change. It’s comforting to be able to calmly state that hats go on heads and tables have four legs, that pants are meant for covering nether regions.
Objects generally behave as we expect them to, and our expectations persist unchanged. So routinely are our expectations confirmed that they never need fall under any introspective interrogations.
Yet when an object goes rogue, in appearance or function, so that it is incapable of fitting into its pre-assigned, rational niche, there arises a great disjunction between what is seen and what we’d feel more secure seeing.
Say you stroll into a gallery space and the first thing that catches your eye seems to be a very large dog-shaped balloon. Yet upon closer inspection it reveals itself to be, not a great Dachshund hewn from inflated latex, but a smooth and imposing stainless steel sculpture by Jeff Koons. Perhaps you’ll be disappointed not to be eye-to-eye with a giant party favour, puffed into and twisted by an even more gigantic clown. Though perhaps you’ll re-evaluate what certain materials ‘must’ look like, and walk away an appreciation for visual alchemy.
In the next gallery hangs a massive photograph, its all-seeing freckled-faced subject leering out at you. As you approach, tip of your nose looming incredibly close, you realise it’s a painting after all. Your first impression gets thrown on the fire, what a revelation this is!
Questioning relationships between concrete objects, fluid concepts and deceitful optics, artists are free to imagine tables without legs, rooms without walls, sculptures without form. Artists boldly toss our fixed realities in our faces, break our internal rules with external anomalies and make us doubtful that we might begin to see.
Exiting from the gallery’s doors, away from balloon dogs and photorealistic blemishes, back to the world’s standard arrangements, we’ve gone through the confidence-shaking shadows of the valley of I Don’t Get It and arrived in a new place. Where possibilities shine brighter and we stand a chance of catching on.
We learn we’re not stranded here, but that we have the ability, moreover the need, to generate our own fresh concepts to carry us forward.