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.

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Posted by Christopher Benson


  1. The Conundrum of Modern Art: Complexity versus Complicatedness … http://bit.ly/9Z3tDc

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter


  2. I certainly have many sympathies with your argument here, but I can’t help thinking you’re engaging in a kind of reversed chronological snobbery. I think the categories of “complicated” vs. “complex” are useful in describing art, but I’d be leery of linking those categories exclusively to one period of art. Though he’s not as well known as he deserves to be, James Wright wrote some absolutely marvelous poetry that is accessible, enjoyable, and sufficiently complex and he did in the 1970s and 1980s. (I’d say the same thing about the work of former US Poet Laureate and a professor at my alma mater, Ted Kooser.) Not all work done in the past 100 years is “complicated.” A good lot of it is “complex.” Likewise, you’re giving the art of yesteryear too much credit if you think it was mostly complex and seldom complicated.

    I say all that b/c I think your argument is weakened (though I wouldn’t say it’s completely invalid) if your historical classification of art breaks down a little.

    I think it’d be better to ignore the question of historical period and focus our attention on the beliefs of the artist in question, and this is where I think your idea about man as sub-creator vs. man as creator is quite useful. If the universe is silent, we become the speakers-in-chief. We create our own meaning, our own significance. (Read this way, I think the work of writers like Samuel Beckett and Joyce, rather ironically, make a great deal of sense.) But if man is a sub-creator working under the authority of a greater creator, then we speak the words given us by him, leading to an accessible and able to be verbalized meaning to the art.

    That being said, even here I’d be cautious: It’s not an issue of Christian’s work under a sub-creator, non-Christians are creators in chief. It ought to be that way, but that’s simplistic. Hugo wrote the most moving picture of grace I’ve ever read in Les Mis. But the man died a rational humanist, most likely of the deistic stripe.

    So while preserving your idea of sub-creator vs. creator, I would say that the decisive factor in grouping art is not going to be the historical setting of the artist or the artist’s religious beliefs. Rather, it will be the artist’s view of authority and humanity’s place as an authority. Are we the final authority, or do we answer to a greater authority? (And that greater authority could be God, or it could be some sort of natural law, as was the case in the works of Hugo and Camus.)


  3. JAKE: Reverse chronological snobbery? I’ve never been leveled with that charge before, but I appreciate the pushback.

    As a generalist, I always feel under the compulsion to observe my “intellectual jurisdiction,” a term that I borrow from my philosophy professor at Wheaton College. I lack the knowledge and authority to make any decisive judgments in music or art history. My education in the great books of the Western canon qualifies me to make modest claims about philosophy and literature. That said, I persist in my observation that something peculiar happens to Western aesthetics during the modern era, and complicatedness is one name for it.

    For proof of increasing complicatedness, I challenge the Mere O reader to visit her nearby art museum, focusing on European and American art. Starting with the ancients and ending with the moderns, she will see a shift from representational to non-representational, from realistic to idealistic, from concrete to abstract, and even from beautiful to ugly. These characterizations are just that: typical features that are observable to the untutored eye roving from gallery to gallery in chronological order.

    The Impressionists mark a transition between what was and what was to come. Their paintings are less representational, less realistic, and less concrete. And yet, Renoir’s “Girl with a Hoop” is far more accessible and lovely than, say, Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm” (pictured above). We would be mistaken to think that the former painting lacks complexity because we readily comprehend what it depicts. So too, we would be mistaken to think the latter painting is complex because it’s incomprehensible.

    Judging by my own experience in art museums – and undoubtedly the experience of others – I think it’s safe to say that hours before Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm” doesn’t yield the same aesthetic pleasure as minutes before Renoir’s “Girl with a Hoop.” Why that’s the case is something that I won’t explore here.

    As to your other point, I think all creators – Christian or non-Christian – derive their creativity from the Creator, regardless of whether they acknowledge it or not. This sounds similar to your comment about “the artist’s view of authority and humanity’s place as an authority. Are we the final authority, or do we answer to a greater authority?”


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