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The Conundrum of Modern Art: Complexity versus Complicatedness

June 28th, 2010 | 3 min read

By Christopher Benson

Terry Teachout, the drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, wrote a fascinating article that was buried in the weekend edition of the June 26th newspaper, "Too Complicated for Words: Are our brains big enough to untangle modern art?" Here is an edited version:

The novels of [James] Joyce and Gertrude Stein, the poetry of Ezra Pound and John Ashbery, the music of Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter, the paintings of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock: All have at one time or another been dismissed as complicated to the point of unintelligibility.

Modern art comes in many varieties, and countless works once thought to be unintelligible now strike most of us as clear. But I have yet to notice a collective change of heart when it comes to such exercises in hermetic modernism as Joyce's "Finnegans Wake," which contains thousands of sentences like this: "It is the circumconversioning of antelithual paganelles by a huggerknut cramwell energuman, or the caecodedition of an absquelitteris puttagonnianne to the herreraism of a cabotinesque exploser?"

Are certain kinds of modern art too complex for anybody to understand? Fred Lerdahl thinks so, at least as far as his chosen art form is concerned. In 1988 Mr. Lerdahl, who teaches musical composition at Columbia University, published a paper called "Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems," in which he argued that the hypercomplex music of atonal composers like Messrs. Boulez and Carter betrays "a huge gap between compositional system and cognized result." He distinguishes between pieces of modern music that are "complex" but intelligible and others that are excessively "complicated"—containing too many "non-redundant events per unit [of] time" for the brain to process. "Much contemporary music," he says, "pursues complicatedness as compensation for a lack of complexity."

. . . . The word "time" is central to Mr. Lerdahl's argument, for it explains why an equally complicated painting like Pollock's "Autumn Rhythm" appeals to viewers who find the music of Mr. Boulez or the prose of Joyce hopelessly offputting. Unlike "Finnegans Wake," which consists of 628 closely packed pages that take weeks to read, the splattery tangles and swirls of "Autumn Rhythm" (which hangs in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art) can be experienced in a single glance. Is that enough time to see everything Pollock put into "Autumn Rhythm"? No, but it's long enough for the painting to make a strong and meaningful impression on the viewer.

That is why hypercomplex modern visual art is accessible in a way that hypercomplex literature and music are not. You can't get through a complicated novel faster by turning the pages more quickly. Reading demands a greater investment of time than looking at a complicated painting, and the average reader is not prepared to invest that much time in a book, no matter what critics say about it. I feel the same way. I suppose I could get to the bottom of "Finnegans Wake" if I worked at it—but would it be worth the trouble? Or would I be better served by spending the same amount of time rereading the seven volumes of Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," a modern masterpiece that is not gratuitiously complicated but rewardingly complex.

"You have turned your back on common men, on their elementary needs and their restricted time and intelligence," H.G. Wells complained to Joyce after reading "Finnegans Wake." That didn't faze him. "The demand that I make of my reader," Joyce said, "is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works." To which the obvious retort is: Life's too short.

My big take-away from this article is the useful distinction between complex art and complicated art; the former is gratifying, albeit challenging, while the latter is gratuitous and grating.

The question for us to explore is this: Why does the modern artist pursue "complicatedness as compensation for a lack of complexity"? Following H. G. Wells' complaint to James Joyce, it would seem that complicatedness happens when the modern artist––shirking his status as a co-creator––refuses creaturely things, such as "elementary needs" and "restricted time and intelligence." He aspires to be the Creator––not to be like the Creator. He tricks himself into timelessness and omniscience, creating art that demands to be worshiped ("he should devote his whole life to reading my works"). The result of this trickery is complicatedness, which beguiles the reader, listener or viewer into thinking that the art is deep when it might be shallow, wise when it might be foolish, and beautiful when it might be ugly.

Complexity, I submit, is the signature of the Creator; all derivative creators can only aspire to forge this signature. Delusion––another name for complicatedness––occurs when the cocksure scribe confuses himself for the Author, signing off on art that is a poor copy of the original.

Christopher Benson