At the tail end of the horrid throat infection (I’ve been ill – have I mentioned?) Husband and I had run out of crap telly to watch and were searching for something to do that didn’t involve leaving the house or, ideally, the sofa. Given that we’re past that kind of thing except on high days and holidays – and besides, I was still infectious and revolting – we turned to the obvious option: the board game. Well, not quite a board game as there wasn’t actually a board, but a game involving cards and stuff, nonetheless. It was called “Psychogames” and was a Christmas stocking filler I’d bought my psychology graduate spouse a couple of years earlier but had never made it out of the box. It contained a series of quizzes, questionnaires and so on intended to give you an insight into your “true self” – and who doesn’t enjoy that?
Well, we worked our way through the first few, and they were entertaining enough (“which image of a garden reminds you most of your relationship?” was a particular highlight); and then we came to the pictures. No photos or Old Masters here, and no Rorschach ink blots either: these were all abstract art prints. We were instructed to talk about what we thought of them – did they remind us of anything, how did they make us feel? – and then to turn over the card and read the text on the back, which would help us consider what our responses told us about ourselves.
Now I’m not very good with abstract art. Occasionally I come across something I like – I’m capable of appreciating a Kandinsky on a purely aesthetic level – but spend time considering whether that line might be running either in front of or behind that circle, and what that’s allegedly saying about the duality of life and the impermanence of matter? No thank you. So I struggled here, feeling ever more of an unimaginative dolt as we went along. The text pretty much corroborated that conclusion. To summarise: appreciate the line/circle/duality of life metaphor and you’re a risk-taking, adventurous creative type (or to put it another way, “better”), think it all looks a bit of a mess, you’re an over-cautious, uncreative pedant (or to put it another way, “FAIL”).
Increasingly desperate to prove that I did have an artistic bone in my body, I found myself looking ever closer at the images, wracking my brain for something interesting to say. Which is why, when we came to Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square (surely you know this one, daahling? Don’t you know it’s a seminal work?) I found myself squinting at the – er – black square, and wondering aloud whether the faint network of creamy coloured lines I could just about make out on its face was there by design or the result of age or damage.
It turns out it’s damage – the square started off pure black and the paint has cracked over time (see Philip Shaw’s commentary on the painting http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/philip-shaw-kasimir-malevichs-black-square-r1141459). But that made me think: if you can spend time pondering a black square and its failure “to represent this transcendent realm” which apparently “serves ‘negatively’ to exhibit the ‘higher’ faculty of reason, a faculty that exists independent of nature” – why not spend as much time on the cracks that have appeared there as a result of “nature” itself? Why, in fact, would anyone spend any time at all looking at a black square of paint and thinking anything of the kind? Any more than they’d spend time looking at – I don’t know – a blackboard against a white wall and considering what it has to say about the meaning of life?
Which brings me to one of the books I read over Christmas: Mark K Danielowski’s House of Leaves. It’s a remarkable novel for many reasons – not least that a publisher was persuaded to make what must have been a significant outlay on a debut author, producing pages with the text at funny angles, loads of blank space, facsimiles and maps and photos, and a doorstep sized volume. It’s a sort of Blair Witch Project in print, purporting to be an academic book on the supernatural events – partly documented on film – at a particular house, written by a man who is now dead, to which copious notes have been added by some chap who’s come across the book as a series of unsecured pages, post-its, maps etc and is attempting to piece it together, whilst apparently being targeted himself by supernatural forces. It’s not easy to describe, and it’s not a walk in the park to read either – footnotes all over the place, footnotes on footnotes, appendices by the armload. However…
I read every word. I read the long, long, long, list of architectural styles and notable buildings that formed a single footnote running down the side of about six pages in what must have been eight point font. I read every single appendix (though I was relieved when I turned to the one that the “editors” then informed me had been “lost”). I looked at the sketches of the black interior of the subterranean structure of the house – not a million miles away from Malevich, now that I think of it. Some of it was interesting, some of it was scary, and quite a lot of it was really dull. But I read it all because I didn’t want to miss anything important. I read it with more attention than I would ever have given a bona fide academic treatise because it was a work of fiction.
I have to conclude then, that despite my irritation at being asked to stare at a square of black paint, there is something about the medium that commands attention; something about the intention of the artist or writer that elevates a work from its material form. It’s because he or she produced their work with a purpose, trying to communicate their ideas, that it’s worth spending time on our response. Perhaps after all, even if it’s not my thing, it’s only polite to reciprocate the effort?
I can’t help though, but feel a faint distrust of the particular kind of abstract art – Malevich’s squares, pretty much anything by Rothko – that looks as if it could have been dashed off in approximately eight minutes. I can’t rid myself of the creeping suspicion that that is precisely what the artist has done, and is laughing up his sleeve at the idiots spending hours planted in front of his canvas, declaiming its fascinating insight into the “principle and passion of organisms” (in case you’re wondering, that was Rothko on his own work), the only real principle at work that of the emperor’s new clothes.
That, at least, is something it’s nigh on impossible to pull off as a writer of novels. No matter how much blank space Danielowski incorporates in some of his pages, it must have taken him ages to put together House of Leaves. And it’s undeniably well written. The characters are utterly believable, the story is intriguing, the whole reading experience feels unusual and discomfiting. I suppose you could say that, as a reader, you feel a faint echo of the discomfort of the characters, adrift in an alien environment. It certainly gives you plenty to think about.
Even so, I don’t think I’ll be rereading it any time soon. And I won’t be making a weekly pilgrimage to the Tate Modern either. But perhaps, next time I’m confronted with art that makes me uncomfortable, I’ll try not to get irritated by the implication that I’m not clever enough to understand it. I’ll try to recognise that the artist is seeking to communicate ideas, in a way that makes sense to him or her even if it doesn’t make sense to me. And I’ll try to spare a bit more time to hush the internal sceptic and think about what those ideas might be.