Don’t criticize what you can’t understand

I read something recently that challenged me to revise my entire view on how I understand and appreciate art. And by art I don’t just mean pictures, but music, games, poetry, TV, film, guitar solos – everything. As a little background, I’m not especially keen on ‘modern’ art – you know the kind that appears in the Tate Modern museum. I’m not exactly vocal about it, but I do sometimes think “How can be considered art? Surely anyone could do that?”. Normally my grounds for argument are based on the lack of technical/artistic proficiency and absence of an obvious aesthetic component to it. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I’m not overly thrilled with abstract art either.

But, recently, I’ve been forced to reconsider these core beliefs. From a book about computer game design, of all things. In a nutshell, the author talks about how we humans are essentially pattern recognition machines. For example, as you may already know, an enormous amount of ‘processing power’ in the brain is devoted to facial recognition. Apparently it’s possible to recognise a smile from the opposite end of a football stadium. So, when it comes to art, a lot of what we describe as ‘aesthetically pleasing’ is actually our brains recognising a pattern out of surrounding noise. In other words, we like order (patterns) and we dislike chaos (noise). For me, this certainly rings true when I consider the rules of composition – things like the rule of thirds, and such like.

Now here’s the interesting part (at least it was for me). Not everyone likes the same thing. Simply put, what you might consider “bad art”, is really just your brain saying “This is too noisy — I don’t get it”. Or put differently, you can’t recognise the inherent patterns in the piece, so all you see is noise. Kind of like tuning in to a show on an analogue TV or radio, but only getting white-noise (static). You might get part of a fragmented picture or muffled audio, but essentially it’s unwatchable. Perhaps a nearby hill is disrupting the transmission, or bad weather, or just faulty equipment — for whatever reason, the result is that you’re not quite getting the intended broadcast.

Does this ring true for you? Historically, virtually every new art form (and sub-genre) has suffered from this stigma. In music, Rock n’ Roll was quite literally scary for some people – it was louder and faster than anything that had gone before. (If only they knew what was coming around the corner!) Jazz is another music form which many people “don’t get” because on the surface its structure sounds unlike anything else. Psychedelia in the 60s; violent films in the 70s and 80s; video games in the 90s and beyond. You get the idea.

So to bring things full circle; I’m faced with a dilemma. Do I dislike modern art because it isn’t very good? Or because “I don’t get it“? For me personally, if I’m to stay open minded and objective about this kind of thing, I have to accept the latter conclusion. I’m not saying I have to like everything I see; but at the same time I don’t think I’m qualified to criticise it either, because I really don’t know enough about it yet (and labelling an entire category as “bad” seems like poor form).

Hence the title of this post, from Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’. Ironically, Dylan himself experienced the same kind of resistance from his own fans, when he first went electric. He stubbornly ignored them and did his own thing (many many times), and is probably a better artist for it.

Well, this was simple a little revelation I had – maybe it won’t change your views as it did mine, but I hope you found it an interesting read.

Incidentally, the book I referred to is called A Theory of Fun, by Raph Koster. I’ll probably reference this a few times on this blog, because I’ve found it hugely inspiring. It’s primarily written for game designers, but a large portion of the book discusses video games’ place alongside other artistic mediums, and the psychology behind learning, fun, and art. If you’re interested in any of this, I thoroughly recommend reading it.

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