Musings: Art, Insight, Perspective

Brief thoughts about art and its social function that took shape on reading Banksy and the Problem With Sarcastic Art, an article in The New York Times Magazine by Dan Brooks.

Questions of what constitutes good or bad art, whether art is about aesthetics or concept, and the artistic merit of insufficiently developed content are interesting in their own ways. However, in the context of this particular article, I feel the more pertinent, even pressing, question is this: Is providing insights the primary function of art? Or, in other words, is art obliged to be insightful? Here’s Dan Brooks’s description of one of the Dismaland installations:

… one of its most remarked-upon installations is a wreck of Cinderella’s carriage: Her body dangles luridly from the window, lit by the flashes of a paparazzi scrum.

That’s a reference. It’s not exactly ironic, nor is it funny. But it’s built like a joke: Like Cinderella, Diana became a princess by marriage. Also like Cinderella, Diana took a famous ride, but her fairy tale turned gruesome — what if Cinderella’s had ended the same way? That’s not exactly an insight, but it has a certain quality.

What he seems to be taking exception to, with the Cinderella installation, isn’t that it’s kitsch, but that it’s kitsch that doesn’t offer a mind-expanding insight and, therefore, is sensationalism for sensationalism’s sake. And, going by his description of the artwork, he is right. Cinematic depictions of exploitation, however critical their tone, themselves teeter on the edge of being exploitative. So too, works of art critiquing sensationalism, may still end up pandering to sensationalist sensibilities. Having said that, I don’t feel, as Brooks does, that this is an “injustice”. I don’t feel, either, that being pure kitsch disqualifies artwork from being ‘art’. We do, for instance, allow movies to depict exploitation of one kind or another, in one form or another; we wince, we squirm, we walkout disgusted, but we allow it nevertheless. Freedom of expression is practically an endorsement of art’s potential (right, even) to offend, frustrate, irritate, disgust or whatever other emotion it is meant to elicit. But be it profound, moving, offensive, frustrating, irritating, or disgusting, I feel art achieves its purpose when it offers a perspective (and whatever its aesthetic shortcomings, the Cinderella installation does offer a perspective)—one that leads to the articulation of deeply held attitudes, beliefs, and sensibilities. And, in a sense, Dan Brooks’s article itself is a testament to this.

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