Learning curve: young artists and an obsession with complexity

Sunday, November 19, 2017 - 6:04pm

This past week, I viewed a presentation of “artist’s books” by former Stamps School of Art & Design students here at the University. An “artist's book” is a piece of art meant to resemble and / or be consumed as a book. In this case, they were supposed to be representative of the creative process. One of the books was an elaborate drawing of a tall mountain and a lake, presumably representing the insurmountable challenge and inevitable fall of the creative process. Another depicted string being attached to a brain, which is (what I assume to be) a depiction of creative thoughts being pulled out of the artist’s head.

While some of these books were more cheerful than others, they all explored the fear and anxieties that are part of the creative process ––  none of these artists chose to take a positive view. As a casual observer of these works, I was stunned by the negative feelings that the creative process brings to these artists and the complex, ambiguous ways in which the artists tried to convey these feelings.

The same could be said of many of the compositions that were premiered this past weekend at the Midwest Composers Symposium, an all-day event on Saturday featuring music from composers studying at the University of Iowa, the University of Indiana, the University of Cincinnati and the University of Michigan. Most of the pieces at this event as well were sad and depressing, with unnecessary dissonances giving everything a melancholy feel. In particular, almost all the chamber music that was premiered during the event was atonal almost to a fault — the composers were obviously working extremely hard to sound complicated and modern. Unlike many modern Serialist composers, these pieces were devoid of anything even remotely implying consonance. They were so complicated that they were incomprehensible.

While complex art can be interesting and engaging, this propensity toward complexity among students can stunt artistic growth. As Pablo Picasso once said, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.” Without a complete understanding of of the forms and stylistic normalities that are being broken to make art seem complex, these young artists lack a basic understanding of their art forms.

At the Midwestern Composer’s Forum, for example, a quick glance at someone’s score showed that they lacked a proper understanding of meter and beaming  –– their inability to properly beam their eighth notes broke through their complex polyrhythmic facade and ruined what was an otherwise extremely sophisticated-looking score. Enharmonic spellings also gave way to pseudo-sophistication with E-sharps and B-sharps replacing F-naturals and C-naturals all over the page. This obsession with complexity was also apparent among the event attendees: Pieces were repeatedly praised for their “interesting soundscapes” and uses of “extended techniques” instead of being praised for their emotional landscapes or artistic value.

Now this does not mean that all art by young composers is complex, or that complex art is bad. But the tendency for complex art among academic institutions and young artists can be bad, particularly considering the multifaceted nature of modern art. Classical music, in particular, has moved in the past thirty years away from an avant-garde dominated marketplace. Thanks to the work of minimalists, post-minimalists, spectralists and neo-romantics, composers no longer need to compose within the serialist or post-tonal harmonic languages.

While some institutions have been able to breach this stylistic gap, many seem to resist this change. Ironic as it may seem, the last frontier for the minimalists to confront is where they began: Educational institutions and young artists. These institutions and the young artists that occupy them remain the last steadfast defenders of this complex aesthetic movement and all it stood for. To the detriment of their artistic growth, these artists remain committed to this pseudo-sophistication and all it stands for. Though it is hard to understand and hard to consume, complex art is compelling, but it is time for a new artistic movement to replace the old and for a new artistic standard to replace the complexity that currently reigns.