Culture Clash | Uses of language

Uses of language


How do we remedy this situation? Whilst it may not be able to provide a better education system or a more balanced media, there are still things a gallery can do, if not to remedy the situation entirely, then to at least provide visitors with greater opportunities for engaging with the experiences on offer.

So what can it do? We’ve seen that many people find it hard to move beyond the idea of art, and what it should or shouldn’t be. When they come across an experience in a gallery that confounds their expectations it produces what psychologist Anthony Storr refers to as ‘basic, cosmic anxiety.’ Storr says, ‘For the average person, the undermining and destruction of a cherished vision of reality can be a shattering experience. Such an upheaval is comparable to the disturbance a man suffers when a person in whom he has had ‘basic trust’ turns out to be unfaithful or untrustworthy.’ 1

To have expectations, and to want to protect and preserve them, can be seen as a natural defense against basic feelings of anxiety. In confounding expectations, the gallery is potentially exposing its visitors to a situation rife with anxiety - how they handle this will rely on a variety of intrapersonal factors.

We touched upon the idea of Negative Capability earlier, a concept that was defined by the poet John Keats. He described it as “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” 2 Negative Capability will differ from person to person; some are able to tolerate uncertainty, and may in fact relish the imaginative possibilities that it allows (Keats being a prime exemplar of this attitude), whilst others may find it extremely uncomfortable.

Psychologist James Hillman had in mind a similar concept when he wrote of ‘entertaining ideas:’ “That word “entertain” means to hold in between. What you do with an idea is hold it between - between your two hands. On the one hand, acting or applying it in the world and on the other hand, forgetting it, judging it, ignoring it, etc. So when these crazy things come in on you unannounced the best you can do for them is to think them, holding them, turning them over, wondering awhile. Not rushing into practice. Not rushing into associations. This reminds of that: this is just like that. Off we go, away from the strange idea to things we already know. Not judging. Rather than judging them as good and bad, true or false, we might first spend a little time with them.” 3

Clearly not everyone has the will or the fortitude to develop their negative capability, or to ‘entertain ideas’. Should the gallery be concerned with these intrapersonal factors? Is it the gallery’s role to compensate for an unsatisfactory education system, or the destructive effects of certain forms of media?

In a perfect world, greater education would ensure that people would not have such narrow expectations about art. In time, the art that mobilizes feelings of anxiety today may assume a place within the common consciousness, along with what we currently call more traditional forms. However, this does not alter the situation that the contemporary art gallery currently faces, and it must ask itself whether it can, and whether it should, be doing more than it currently does to help people get beyond their fear of anxiety and engage with potentially rewarding experiences.

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Culture Clash | Uses of language | The term 'art'