Can art be too clever?

It’s such a tired thing to say “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like”. In fact as one studies it more and more the opposite tends to creep in, one knows lots about art but one doesn’t know what one likes anymore.

Tired though these jokes are, like most jests they contain an element of truth. There’s also an element of truth that people mostly seem to like art that’s “clever.” It’s wrong to generalise but it does seem that in conversation people seem to like their art to be “clever,” but of course clever can mean many things. Some people refer to clever craft work, others to intellectual purity and of course, to symbolism and wit.

The very existence of so called naive art and folk art reinforces the notion that we have categorised the mainstream as being clever, whereas naive can just be beautiful. The resistance of the public to primitive art of the twentieth century shows that it’s difficult to grasp that clever can be simple. “A kid could do that” is another common so-called insult that betrays the viewers’ understanding of clever actually is. 

The same happens with music. The Beatles, rightly vaunted as the preeminent artists of their milieu retreated to their primitive rock and roll and folk side after the Baroque and Roll artifice of Sgt Pepper, the single from the session, Strawberry Fields being so beautifully complex that it stopped it getting to number one, breaking an unheard of run of success. It was beaten by a lounge crooner with a simple whistle along melody.  Maybe that was the clever song and Strawberry Fields was simply too complex?

In a world of high definition screens everywhere and cameras of professional quality in one’s pocket, there’s a movement of hyper realism that’s emerged. People painting like photographs at high resolution. Why is this? Is it an expression of and appreciation of pure craft? Is it a rejection of the hi-res wold through assertion of the human touch? Or is it just liked because a person made it? 

The waves of folk-level naive abstract art being made and displayed across Instagram are, on the face of it and in many ways, the opposite. Here we see people attempting what they perceive as being clever but mostly without thought. They are actually shallow primitively gestural in nature, designed to go on walls, colourful and pretty manifestations of half considered feelings, post-rationalised with pleonastic titles and descriptions. The only real cleverness being on the title card. Clever abstraction is when something exists in it’s purest state. Rheinhardt’s minimalist pieces being just one example of purity as is the music of Glass and Cage among others.

So what is “clever art” at the moment? 

In fact it’s a difficult to say, it can be high craft skills or low simple meaning. When I look at work in the age of artificial intelligence and cut, copy and paste culture I begin to think that clever art is art that’s pure to it’s vision, but that bears repeated viewing and discovery, operating on both meta and sub textual levels and making the mind and heart work together and that’s complex.

Of course, people often conflate the notions of complexity and cleverness, something can be complex without being clever and vice-versa and this is the root of the issue. Once we separate these two words we can see that art doesn’t need to clever to be good but it has to carry some form of complexity.

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