The (In)congruency of Art

Appreciating art is a problem of congruency.

More specifically, to decide whether a piece of art is objectively good or bad, it’s necessary to know a bunch of metadata about that piece of art: what style is it; what the intent of the artist was; what constraints were imposed; and so on.

To decide whether or not one subjectively likes a piece of art is simple: you look at it and have a reaction to it.

Your subjective reaction to the art is your opinion, which you’re entitled to. If you don’t like a piece of art and that dislike prevents you from appreciating it then it’s up to you to grow your understanding of the art to the point where you can appreciate it. But your subjective reaction is always valid, because it’s your personal relationship with the art. Like other relationships, it can change over time and at the same time be valid all along the way.

Objectively though, art can be good or bad. Art that’s executed poorly is bad, but to define the execution it’s necessary to understand the circumstances. There’s a huge difference between gorgeous pixel art created in that style and badly-made textures that are pixelated because of some horrible flaw in the process. But to understand that you’d need to know that ‘pixel art’ is a style in the first place, and then you’d need to understand the techniques that go into making it to be able to make decisions about what’s good or bad.

This is the essential foundation of the idea that appreciating art is a problem of congruency: we tend to judge art by what we like, but our ability to like a piece of art is based, whether we want to think so or not, on our understanding of the style and techniques that went into making it.

To illustrate that point, one can review any of the now majorly established styles of art in the world, and in a lot of cases the reactions to the initial works of that style are not favorable. Early exhibitions of cubist works, for example, had confused patrons wondering if the artists had gone mad. After the fact, there’s much more of a general understanding of the intent of the cubists, and so there’s a lot more scope for people to understand where they were coming from, and to appreciate the art in the appropriate context.

In other words, objectively understanding the cubist ideology influences our subjective reaction to those works. Yes they look weird, but there’s a strange beauty in the abstract. When you understand what the artist was intending, you can appreciate their point of view as expressed through their art.

But there’s always the question that arises in the art world, which is, should we have to explain art? Shouldn’t the art be exclusive to the people who fundamentally understand it, who get it on some visceral level?

If you’re making art for the sake of art, then the question is moot. If you’re making art to explore a thought or push a boundary then you inherently don’t care whether or not anyone else understands it. If you happen to show that piece to other people and some number of those people instinctively understand what you were thinking and where you were going with that thought, then that’s great. It’s a powerful connection you have with those people, but that connection, their approval, is not necessary for the sake of the art.

On the other hand, if you’re making art to make a living, then it’s absolutely necessary to do one of two things: either to make art that a significant group of people already understand, so they’ll buy it and you can make money; or to make art the way you want and educate the general public so that they’ll understand what you’re doing and want to be a part of it with their wallet.

This is a problem that’s not unique to the business, the commercialization, of art. In a more general sense, if your potential customer base doesn’t understand their need for your product or doesn’t know about the existence of it, then they’re by definition not going to buy it. They may want it, and they may buy it, but first they have to know about it. Once they know about it, then they have to understand it.

Most technology is sold in this way, at least initially. Who needed a personal computer in 1981? Nobody needed one back then, but plenty of people wanted one once they were educated about the benefits and the uses. And still others instinctively knew the uses and wanted one as soon as they were aware that it was possible to purchase one. And the early PC builders were by and large building them just because they could, and because they wanted to see what was possible. Building the device and educating the public created the market.

This idea illustrates another problem of congruency in art: pushing the boundaries of art often involves creating works that few will initially appreciate, which is incongruent with the artist being able to sell their works to make a living.

Art in a vacuum, or art for the sake of art, can afford to be whatever it wants to be. Art to make a living has to be a certain combination of things. If your art has to make you a paycheck, then that in itself is a constraint on the creative process.

The idea that making a business out of art is itself a constraint on the art is what I think leads to the idea of selling out: that it’s somehow inherently bad or false or make art with the intent of selling it. I don’t see it that way. Art is often about pushing a boundary or working within a constraint or set of constraints. The commercial viabilitly of your work is merely another one of those constraints.


Inspiration for these thoughts came via a tweet and this article. Agree with what I wrote? Disagree? Have your own commentary? That’s great! Leave followups or ping me on Twitter, @clockworksimon.

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