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.

Related posts:-
Culture Clash | Uses of language | The term 'art'


  1. There is a case for looking at social/class issues in terms of if people think it is for them. A lot of people still see BALTIC/Sage etc not being for them and still see the 'toon' as being about beer, football and the Bigg Market. Is this something that we need to overcome or should we leave them be?

    Education may not be the issue as such but the contemporary state of mind and the need for instant answers and the unwillingness to be in a state of uncertainty. We live in a world of instant communication and we expect results straight away, via the Internet, 24 hour media etc. Art is something that takes time to understand and maybe require a lot of questioning before you reach a possible answer. Art unveils its possibilities, methods and knowledge to us overtime This is something people do not have time for in this contemporary world.

  2. Quick results. Orgasm without the foreplay.

    Perhaps the important thing is to give people permission to enter an experience; that is, to push them beyond thinking, 'that isn't for me' (i.e. 'I don't have permission').

    I still feel that about Theatre, and, until recently, Dance. I don't have permission. I realise this is absurd, but because I've never been introduced to these realms of experience - never given permission at an early point - I don't consider them as within my repertoire of experience. All it would take would be a minute shift.

    But currently I think; well, I'm satisfied with the forms of culture I have, why do I need these other forms? But, having recently seen a Dance show for the first time, I realise that there are subtleties of experience within it that I'd never even considered (perhaps because I'd had no cause to stop and think). The only reason I saw that show is because I was ushering it, but that experience extended me a permission.

    And now Dance can be one more thing that I like, and one more door that is open to me. The world expands, and I'm less inclined to view the situation as: me and them (i.e. me, and those that like Dance). Things become less black and white, and I'm also less able to be predjudiced. Fringe benefits.

    So maybe a useful idea is permission, and how to extend it.

  3. Also, to call it 'Dance' is almost to erect a wall around it. Again, terms getting in the way of fluid experience. I realised when watching it that it could be many things, not least a way of enjoying and appreciating music.

    There are so many possibilities inherent within the experience (the 'Dance show') that are overlooked when it is shelved as 'Dance'. It becomes 'safe' and known, or knowable. The danger is that it stays within the confines of its definition. In other words it becomes less fluid (fluid in the sense that, as an experience, it spills into and becomes other experiences).

  4. Process Orientation vs. Outcome Orientation [Langer]

    We need to understand it so that we can resolve it, and so move on to the next thing. Rumination creates stasis, which can be uncomfortable. It lingers, unresolved. Our education teaches us to find answers because this is how we know we are clever, and so is one way of establishing our worth (to society).

    Art galleries do not adhere to this idea, advocating instead the viewpoint that understanding - getting to the answer, the outcome - may not be the only way. They encourage us to hold conflict, to let it do its work within us.

    We may not be prepared for this because we rarely come across this approach, if at all.

  5. Any threat against vital (material and emotional) interests creates anxiety, and destructive tendencies are the most common reaction to such anxiety.

    [Erich Fromm]
    The Fear of Freedom, p.155