Bad art and other acquired tastes

Have you ever gone around a gallery, only to have someone you’re with make a face and say, ‘Eurgh. That’s bad art’?

Some of my favourite art is on this page. Does it repulse or attract you?
Does this repulse or attract you? (Lucian Freud)

Next time, ask them why. Really tease it out of them if they’re the kind of person you can have that conversation with. Do they start off saying something lofty about how art should mean this and that? Do they talk about the level of skill required? Ask them why that makes it bad art. Not necessarily always, but in my experience, usually, you’ll come down to ‘I just don’t like it’ if you keep poking at someone’s preferences, even if that is said in a crossing of the arms or a canny ‘we can agree to disagree’.

What we have here is a reaction of aversion, of such a strength that it denies the validity even of the identity ascribed to an object of experience. It’s not just saying, ‘this isn’t my cup of tea’; it’s saying, ‘that is so repulsive that I am going to chuck it out of the window’. Perhaps you’ve had that reaction yourself; you find that floor of sunflower seeds or painting that used someone’s crap somehow offensive.

My obvious point is that identity is not necessarily a rational process; instead, there’s a bodily feeling that rejects or accepts something. I mean, let’s face it: if something is in an art gallery, there is at least someone who thinks it should be there. It’s not the same thing as a person pointing at a dog and calling it a cat. It’s a very wooly concept compared to what a triangle is. Beware the thought that rationality underpins your decisions. It’s a reassuring idea, and I’ve learned to be very suspicious of reassuring ideas when it comes to my contemplative practice!

So, that’s the very visceral, immediate response: I like this art, I don’t like this art; it deserves to be here, it needs to be burnt while we dance around it merrily. How about you do an art degree, or chat to artists for a few years and view their work, or simply go to a lot of galleries and think about what you see, or study the philosophy of art? I think you might start to consider yourself as developing a sense of the aesthetic. If you’re liberal about it, and I suspect many will be, you’ll basically start to err on the side of ‘anything that is presented as art, is art’. You’ll start to look at art from a different perspective. What are your thoughts about it? What are your feelings?

How about now? (Henry Bacon)
How about now? (Henry Bacon)

And, interestingly, you might start to develop a taste for art that repulses you. It’s a stimulus and you start to enjoy being stimulated in this safe, entertaining, cultural, thoughtful setting. Even if you don’t like it, you’re more likely to sit there and look at it even as it disgusts you (or perhaps you’ll start breezing past it, but that’s what we’d call a near enemy in this game). There’s no need to have a huge hissy and leave the room; you can at least give it a minute and have a sensual experience for the sake of it, really. You’ve paid to enter the gallery; rushing past all of it would hardly be your money’s worth, would it?

You see, this ain’t so much a metaphor as actually (dun dun DUN!) a contemplative practice, since (dun dun DUN!) there ain’t nuffin in the world that isn’t when it gets down to it, guv’nor, when we’re talking about preferences. You can take a different approach to the world than immediately screaming and running away from the slightest unpleasantness, or attempting to dryhump whatever really entices you. Instead, you can take an observer position that is not unlike the aesthetic mode of the artist.

The presumption here is that nothing here will hurt you. Don’t be afraid to wait a moment and experience the fullness of life. No, you nitwit, don’t experience the fullness of that burn on your hand, go and put it under some cold water (and then experience the fullness of that perhaps?). Smart arse comments aside, the bark of those fear reactions, anger reactions, shame reactions, is just that: a bark, not a bite. A signal, not the stressor. You can trust your true rationality, which is the faith in cause and effect that says that you can afford to stay for a minute and see what unfolds beyond that split second you could bear up to now.

Make life the gallery. Get your money’s worth. Experience the full range of your emotions. Explore your life. And, if this starts to appeal just a tiny bit, you can do the ‘art course’: you can commit to doing a particular practice systematically, or simply dedicating a bit of time every day to exploring practice in general. Now I write it, that’s a very healthy way of looking at it: how many people study things they’re fascinated by for fun, free from the stress of deadlines and the requirements of exams? You don’t have to want to be a Buddha to want to stop screwing your eyes up at everything in life. But you will start to become interested in the subtler connections as they start to become more obvious. It’s been very enriching for me.

This one? How's that feel? (Glenn Brady)
This one? How’s that feel? (Glenn Brady)

You can start to develop the acquired taste in contemplative practice of looking at the unpleasant. This is not masochism and it is not advocating for you to seek out the unpleasant. If you’re getting that out of this, then perhaps that says more about you than me. It is the simple acknowledgement that not everything is nice and at some point, you’re going to have to stop running if you want to have some true peace. But, less dramatically, it’s also fun. Those jagged vibrations in the body, that confusion in the mind; they’re all passing phenomena, different flavours. When they arise, look at them for once, knowing that this sight won’t sear itself onto your eyes. The taste of anchovies won’t linger in the mouth forever; you will not feel anxious for the rest of your life. Just enjoy the experience as an experience.

And what is that enjoyment itself? Now we’re getting into advanced material. It isn’t the same thing as the pleasure or pain felt in the body. Is it possible that it’s somehow more unconditional? This is where further trust arises for me, as I see there is really something beyond satisfaction and dissatisfaction.