For a while after the lockdowns, I had worried that my ability to concentrate on art had been impaired. Whether due to post-Covid changes in my brain, or merely a loss of socialised behaviours, I found myself less likely than before to sit listening to or watching something without my mind wandering.
For someone working in the arts, this was… concerning.
However, I think I have come to a different conclusion now.
It is not that I have lost the ability to concentrate, but the patience to.
I was never a great audience member for conceptual art. There were some bits that I really liked, but many I found a bit underwhelming.
Typically, this related to my sense of their richness/depth (loosely defined here). It is very easy for someone to create a semi-abstract piece where someone (say) ties a plastic bag to a stick and lets it billow in the wind, and then state that it is a metaphor for the environmental/refugee/childhood depression crisis.
It is quite hard, however, to find an idea that:
a) is complex and nuanced in the way that much of this art is, or strong enough to be really simple.
Ideas (artistic or intellectual) that might make a catchy, mob-appealing Tweet are quite rarely enough to be interesting for half an hour or more.
This includes ideas for a group of like-minded people grumbling around a table at the pub, calls to be nice, and mild-mannered variants on what has gone before.
Thinking of specific positive examples, ‘here is a set of subtle and well-honed reflections around our relationship with the planet via object-oriented ontology and my own engagement with spirituality’ and ‘I hate the government (here’s why)’ are, respectively, complex-nuanced and strong-simple. It’s partly why, I suspect, Option #2 is a very popular genre.
And stories, often, provide a way to do that. ‘Here’s a historical/literary tale I want to tell’ is, for the purposes of this, an idea.
b) the artist can find a good way to express in their form.
There are many intellectuals who have interesting ideas.
There are many artists who are technically skilled in their chosen form.
A great deal of experimental art exposes the fact that this is a Venn diagram of categories, and not everybody is in the overlapping section.
For example, I am very fond of Marxian art, but I will also admit that while the ideas of Marx and his heirs are very interesting, there are a great many artists who have embraced elements of those ideas, before failing to find good ways to express them through their artistic form.
It’s often really hard to take an idea from ‘technically interesting’ to ‘engaging for half an hour’.
Earlier in my career, I would talk about ‘avant-garde propaganda for small audiences who already agree with it’ as a problem. You can remove almost any word from that sentence and move towards solving the problem, which is why I’m pleased with the expression.
I’d probably now consider ‘pieces that might achieve all their goals in a five-minute presentation, expending fewer resources and less effort’ as a similarly questionable area, though the phrasing is less satisfying.
Because I’ve really enjoyed some pieces, but many others I’ve felt… disappointed. Maybe it’s just not for me, but…
I used to be better at making myself sit patiently through a piece, even as I thought ‘hmm. Not convinced here.’
But now I feel ‘I could be doing something else with my time. Maybe reading The Tale of Genji.* Finally getting around to Wozzeck. Just being at home rather than in a too-small seat, or speaking with friends. Most likely, getting the work on applications done I’ll need to do to meet deadlines. I have offered you my time, and you have wasted it.’
Not usually so snarkily, in my defence. And I am equally happy to blame my being tired, not in the mood, underprepared [while objecting to having to do homework for an evening show] or other ways to denigrate my ability to concentrate. And sometimes, one ought to see a piece that does not hold one's concentration entirely, whether as a deliberate choice or because it is doing something novel that almost works or for any other reason.
But I am at times allowed to grumble. I want to be excited by what I see. Or fascinated, enthralled, or any other thing.
Please, let me be.
*Since writing this, I have now finished The Tale of Genji (in translation). Would recommend large parts of it.