by Christelle Proulx
Last 9th of December, in the British journal The Guardian, an article presented a declaration by artist Anselm Kiefer proclaiming: ‘Art is difficult, it’s not entertainment.’ This statement is striking and it begs us to reflect on art and its reception, more so in the case of contemporary art that has the reputation of being inaccessible to the general public.
Anselm Kiefer is without doubt a great artist. I could even say that he is one of the artists that inspired me to pursue a graduate degree in Art History after his solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Montreal. In 2006, “Heaven and Earth” was an exhibition very rich in interpretations. I even remember having found the explanations on the guide a little bit farfetched. The fact that one of his pieces belongs to the Musée du Louvre collection is certainly one of the main marks of legitimation of his work in the world of art. It is likely that this is also a factor in why his categorical affirmation is tricky, since it comes from such an influential artist.
I had the impression of having stumbled into the old elitist beliefs of American art critic Clement Greenberg written in his classic essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”, where he positions entertainment on the same side as Kitsch, poverty and lack of education; in opposition to real art, the art of the Avant-Garde, difficult and made for rich educated people.
Art cannot place itself in opposition to entertainment. There’s an overlap between the two, and to attempt to trace which part belongs to which is often very difficult. I really don’t believe in that kind of firm oppositions; I prefer to see art as a concept in the form of “constellations”, with contradictions that coexist and overlap, that complement and defy each other. Yet, if art must be “difficult” it is probably with the purpose of making it really effective on its contribution to new ideas about itself and about life. Though if it is only a few people that have access to those ideas because the artworks are too hermetic, it exists only as intellectual amusement that demands time, but has no more impact on life because it doesn’t reach the public.
The works of art should help the public to understand what it intends to communicate to them. Without making it easy, it must give clues of the thoughts it proposes. It also makes sense to me that art has to be “difficult” because its importance dwells in its capacity of making us reflect. Art must ask the viewer to be active in his interpretation rather than passive.
Artistic value is not intrinsic to the work, it is produced trough a complex system that comprises people that have visions and values that are very different: historians, critics, artists, museums, art collectors, art enthusiasts, etc. There is not one Art, but rather there are the arts. I firmly believe that art should contain a part of complexity, although it could be less without loosing its status; without becoming “anti-art” as Kiefer argues. The easy formulas that are visually captivating without opening the door to much more; may this be gratuitous provocation or empty esthetics, are nevertheless part of art. Art, no offense to the purists, is not and cannot be “pure.”
If art was easy, reflection about it would not have any reason to be. So yes, in that sense it should require a certain effort. Is it the work itself that should be difficult? I don’t think so. Should artistic practice? Maybe yes. I think it entails thorough research work. Art interpretation in general and of the works of art specifically? Seems this is rather it. It should demand an effort from the public to reflect on the meaning of the work.
If art, any art, is to hermetic that it takes years of reflection to derive some meaning, there would be only a bunch of art historians for which art would be meaningful. This is rather limited as an option. Art, in my view, should be multilayered. The artistic value seems to lie in the variety and depth of possible interpretations, which is called polysemy. Art that is accessible, and art that is hermetic have their place, but I’m all for the most accessibility possible, without falling into simplicity devoid from all critical sense. To make accessible the critical side of art seems a worthy goal.
 Published in 1939 in the Partisan Review.
 A bit like Kiefer states in the article, Greenberg opposed “real” art to commodity. If it is true that the market can pervert the conception of art, just as when Kiefer argues that « buying art is not understanding art ». This issue demands more reflection than I cannot address here now, but it is important to keep this in mind.