In which Dan tries to stop dismissing so much art

I spent yesterday evening walking up and down Brunnenstrasse, the street that many of Berlin’s tiny one-room art galleries have collectively settled on as home. Every Friday evening they simultaneously open their doors, bring out the booze, shove a DJ in the corner (optional), and show off their latest display for the wandering crowds. It’s a perfect example of culture being dictated by economics: none of the galleries are large enough to justify a visit in themselves – but darting between a dozen of them there’s certain to be something worthwhile.

So some Fridays I trot down there with the rest [*]. And…I spend a lot of the time trying to figure out why so much of the art leaves me cold. Partly, yes, it’s Sturgeon’s Law. But much of it is due to my own horribly narrow taste in art – and that’s something I can probably change, or at least understand. So I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what that taste is, and what scope there is to squeeze it out into other areas.

There’s one class of art that almost always appeals to me. I guess I take my art as I take my politics: gradually built up from the details, the overall interpretations multiple and provisional, rough guides to a landscape just this side of chaos. That means I’m a sucker for a certain subset of surrealism, and that among the Old Masters I go for the paintings full of convoluted, ambiguous classical and religious symbolism. Above all it means I love complex drawings, projections of multi-dimensional mental fantasies that don’t fit neatly onto paper. Better still when they’re in colourful paint. Then seeing the painting becomes something close my stereotype of an acid trip [**]: filling my mind with more fantasies and more layers of meaning than it can cope with [***]

I’ve mentioned before my love of Alexander Rodin, who is a perfect example of this: he seems to have some kind of synaesthesic SF epic trapped within his head. More mundane is Norman Sandler, whose latest work I saw yesterday: fragments of cityscapes and household objects, layered over each other, full of rubbish and cryptic text and what look like tea-stains (was this planned, or did he just knock over a cup? We may never know: the drawings are none the worse for their brown stains, but nor are they noticeably improved by them). It doesn’t have visual impact or the imaginative complexity of Rodin, but there’s enough in it to set me dreaming.

So that’s what I like. Then there are two (very large) groups of art which I don’t like, and doubt I ever will. The first is realistic art – portraits, landscapes, still life, feels obsoleted by the camera (the exceptions are paintings that rely on cunning composition, to the extent that they would make good photographs too – I’m an unashamed fan of Holbein’s The Ambassadors). That cuts out, what, maybe 80% of everything between 1600 and 1900, and all but the greatest before that?

On to the 20th century, where I rule out almost all conceptual art. Anything which relies on a single idea, or a single striking impression, is going to bore me after the first 30 seconds, no matter how funny or original it is. That includes Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, and whatever else turns up in the papers as those craaazy Turner judges. It also includes the half of surrealism I don’t love – Duchamp’s Fountain, for instnce, or a lot of Magritte.

Actually, I’m surprised how much that leaves in the middle, art that might appreciate, but that probably can’t put me in that trance-like state that only complex surrealism can manage. I’ve probably dismissed more than half of visual art – but less than half of what is being churned out now. Not many of the Brunnenstrasse galleries show purely realistic art. They do show a lot of simplistic stuff – but now I’ve identified it as something I don’t like, I’ll feel less guilty about just walking away from it (strange how my mind works).

And the rest? Well, it’s got a chance, maybe I’ll learn to love it. What I really need is last.fm for paintings.

* Particularly when I’m skint. The galleries are all free – in that peculiar way that industries parasitic on the super-rich tend to be. I often wonder about the hidden infrastructure that keeps out tramps, and how many of the trendy young folks are really eking out a Quentin Crisp-like existence on peanuts and flamboyance.

** A stereotype because I’ve never taken LSD. I would love to, given the right circumstances. But although people try to sell me cannabis virtually every time I leave the house (side-effect of hair), I’ve never dared buy drugs. Besides, I wouldn’t want to take it alone, and I have no circle of regularly-tripping friends to induct me – so the doors of perception remain closed for now.

*** This experience of multiple things colliding in my head is one of the strangest and most euphoric mental states I know, aside from anger. Arthur Koestler wrote a book called The Act of Creation, in which he triesto explain science, creativity and humour as all being about this collision of different frameworks of understanding. He doesn’t quite succeed – his subject is too vast to have a neat answer – but his attempt is enlightening, and it’s a book that’s been rattling round in my head for the past decade. Mircea Eliade tried to apply a similar framework to religious mysticism. His idea was that all mystical experiences are a ‘coincidentia oppositorum‘, a mental experience of conflicting beliefs being simultaneously true.
Koestler and Eliade’s ideas are too bold and general to really be true (maybe they’re typical Central European intellectuals in that?). Nonetheless, they both resonate deeply with my experiences. I’m not sure how unusual I am in that respect; I don’t see many other people talking about art and mysticism in similar terms, so maybe it’s just a fluke of how my brain is wired.

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