There is a significant population of people that are alarmed, scandalised, affronted and viscerally offended by pictures painted in bright colours, whether representational or abstract, or somewhere in between. I have the anecdotal evidence. They can’t stand them, but more than that, they secretly believe that such pictures need to be destroyed and the artists that paint them corrected and straightened. It’s a funny reaction to what are, in fact, just pigments in a fluid suspension, applied to a blank canvas. To their minds, however, something is profoundly wrong if the brightest pigments are placed on that blank canvas. Isn’t that a rather strange reaction?
You can find similar populations reacting to electric guitar sounds, especially if the guitar sound is in any way distorted. Somehow, the simple saturation of electronic amplification components constitutes the work of the Devil himself. And don’t get me started on synthesisers and synthetically produced musical timbres. Such things are considered to be degenerate and evil. You are permitted to animate the molecules in the air if you start with a wooden stick, a string made from the intestines of a once living creature, the stretched skin of a dead animal, or a bone pipe, but woe betide you if you create those molecular animations using mathematics and electronics, without needing to kill any animals!
Where does this bizarre thought pattern come from and why can’t they see how ridiculous it is?
I’ve come to the conclusion that the matter is not one of aesthetic preference. If it were, holders of that narrow aesthetic sensibility would support the preferences of people that instead, happen to like bright colours, distorted electric guitar sounds and music synthesis – that sort of thing. But they don’t. They also struggle to defend their purist aesthetic sensibilities with anything that approaches rational, sensible arguments.
What their view is really about is control and fear. It’s the fear that artists that explore these tones, textures and timbres in their work are somehow completely out of control. They’re wrong ’uns. If somebody doesn’t do something to reign in their dangerous experimentation, it could lead to chaos, disorder and the destruction of society. That’s what they’re scared of. They worry about the loss of order and hierarchy, of obedience and discipline and their place within it, in favour of free spirited, joyful, curiosity-driven exploration of the full gamut of sounds and colours possible. In short, these aesthetic purists believe, fervently and as an article of unarguable faith that they need to own other people and control them, as if such artists are incapable of rational self-control or self-discipline. They treat those of us that play with the more unconventional sounds and colours as children, who must be prevented from acting on their own initiative, for their own good.
The irony is that they equate their inability to control other artists with anarchy, as if anarchy is an undesirable state of affairs, where the self appointed controllers are no longer able to control the wayward and dangerous others. They see themselves as guardians of civilisation and decency. What’s so civilised and decent about believing you have the right to own the thoughts, actions and expressions of other people? What gives you the right? Anarchy is nothing more than recognising that it is unjust to own other people.
Anything that represents change or newness, to these people, is not evaluated and subsequently embraced or discarded on its own merits, but rather on the extent to which it disturbs their established mental model of how they wish the world would work. Why this should matter is rooted in the fear of no longer being able to understand and control the way the world does work. It’s an obsessive need to impose their own, particular hallucination about how the world ought to be, upon the world as it actually is. They’re trying to reshape reality in their own imaginary conception of it. They can’t accept that some artists like to paint with the brightest colours in the box, or to play their guitars loud, or to hear something that can’t be produced with the remains of dead animals and trees.
The other thing that is often apparent, when somebody criticises your bright, abstract painting, your distorted guitar sounds or your synthetically augmented music production, is a veiled envy. They spend a lot of time in self-denial and self-censorship, these people; acting and creating as they think they ought to, in order to remain acceptable to people that think just like they do. They care intensely about what other people think of them and their art, so they are ever so slightly jealous of those that are free of those shackles, who make art to please themselves, without caring what other people think of it. Perhaps it is the conflict between the herd instinct and the desire to be an individual that enrages them.
What is a given is that these people that fear the unconventional can’t help making their discomfort and displeasure at your work known. They’ll be rude, dismissive, derisive and offensive in their appraisals. Even on the venerable BBC Radio 4 Today show, presenters will feign a preference for classical music, as high art, over rock and roll, even though rock and roll is an art form that is well over sixty years old and hardly a threat to the established order of things, any longer. Most Glastonbury attendees, for example, voted Conservative, according to a poll carried out by The Guardian newspaper. Yet, the sneering and derisive comments are still broadcast. Fear. Pure fear.
Artists, more than most groups in society, are more unconventional than most. Consequently, they bear the brunt of the widespread fear of the unconventional. The criticisms are made as if being conventional is a good thing, for the progress of humanity. It clearly isn’t and it is dangerous. Unquestioning conformance and compliance to authority, for example, can get you killed. Without the unconventional, progress is not possible. Yet, even amongst artists, there are some very conventional artists, indeed. You can recognise the orthodoxy in their work. Does it inspire you? Does it lead you to imaginative explorations of other possibilities, or is it merely decorative, to fill the blank spaces with something mildly less bland and anonymous?
My advice to people that have a fear of the unconventional is to mind your own business. It’s none of your concern. If your personal obsession is to uphold your own hallucinatory idea of what defines order and stability, keep it to yourself and get over it. There are artists trying to do important, ground-breaking, exploratory work. Stop interfering with them.