While it is neither necessary nor beneficial to slather happy faces on every piece of creative output, must a work always be harsh, bleak, or baffling, or make people feel squirmy, in order to be considered significant?
To what degree have these characteristics become simply a way of meeting contemporary social expectations of "serious" art?
This question becomes especially pointed when we take a step back to consider how the relationship between the arts, critics, and the public has metamorphosed.
To a degree that was unheard of in the times of, say, Michelangelo or Mozart, our age has looked to artists to provide deeper insights into life. But typically, we haven’t expected the artists themselves to deliver these insights in anything more than partial glimpses. It has become the role of the critic to take the various bits of vision that a variety of artists struggle to share with us, and explicate and synthesize them into some kind of grand, overarching thesis.
Or to put it a slightly different way, in an age when people have begun looking to the arts for the kinds of profound truths they have more traditionally sought in religion, critics have come to represent a new kind of priestly class.
We would do well to remember at this point in our social evolution that priestly classes have historically had a way of presenting the position of humankind relative to the ineffable in a way that tends to emphasize the need for priests.
As described by most of history’s priestly orders, just about any conception of a deity has a way of coming across as not just powerful, but also dangerously unpredictable, and therefore in constant need of skilled stroking and “handling,” of a kind that (unsurprisingly), only the priests themselves know how to provide. Historically, this has been as true of Christianity, whose deity Jesus himself described as an infinitely loving and forgiving parent, as for religions that demand human sacrifices involving the ceremonial removal of still-beating hearts.
Having put our arts critics in the position of traditional priests, we should not be surprised when they begin to show similar traits. And if we find that what separates a “significant” work of art from an “insignificant” one is ultimately something so arcane that it can be apprehended only by the critic himself, perhaps it is time to change our standards.
Is being difficult or inaccessible really the sine qua non of serious artistic achievement? Is being hard to grasp the same thing as being deep? Can’t it also result from an idea’s simply being poorly communicated, or ill conceived?
Our perspective will remain unproductively skewed until we get over a contemporary worry that beauty, readability, or the ability to resonate with people of all types may somehow in and of themselves render a work insignificant.