Why should art make people uncomfortable? That's the question I asked of a man who paints, writes poetry, does needlepoint (believe it or not), loves to talk and has a real job, too. His answer:
Art that doesn't make you uncomfortable says, "It's OK not to look at me if you don't feel like it."
My friend Jim [James Baker Hall], who was my teacher, said if you write a short story, you have to bend the bar.
We joke about, "Whoa, what the fuck does that mean? Bend the bar?"
But I kind of know. I think of it as a metal bar for some reason.
There has to be enough tension in a piece of art for there to be a dynamic, for there to be energy in it.
Some people don't want tension at all even if it's just from a piece of art.
So, I think good art makes you uncomfortable because you have to put aside whatever comfort zone you're in—not a bad place necessarily, just a whistling state of mind—and let yourself be invited in.
If a piece of art exists long enough and you know it well enough, then you're able to be comfortable in it because you know what happens, right?
So you keep re-telling the story just enough that it makes it scarier for you.
Often in a great movie, for example, you can see echoes of other great pieces of art. But now it's cast in this new way. It doesn't mean that it's a better piece of art: it just means that it surprised you. It got you involved again, and you didn't know what was going to happen, and there's a kind of discomfort in that.
You could even think of being engaged as a form of discomfort. Because comfort is a kind of disengagement. It's like you're being neither here nor there with your attention. It doesn't matter if I look at that painting or not.
Like a painting by Thomas Kinkade.
He's sold more art than any painter in history. And his art sucks. Because there's no focal point, there's never any tension. It's like an affirmation that says, "You're a good boy," right? "You're so good!"
If you're struck by some thing's beauty, and then when you go back to your ordinary life and your ordinary mindset, you notice a contrast. It's different than driving down the street. You've been moved.
If you just look at the paintings of Franz Kline or Mark Rothko, which don't have any subject matter, your mind may never say, "Well, that's just a stack of blobs of paint for a Rothko" or, "That's just something my 7 year old could do."
It [the painting] is actually going straight to your lizard brain and having some kind of effect that is significant. Mark Rothko just did color fields, stacks of color. But you could make a bad Mark Rothko painting that just fit so seamlessly into the landscape that you don't notice it.
Just to be encouraged to notice is enough to make some people uncomfortable, I think.
It's a matter of degree, depending on the person, and how afraid they are.
I think some people who have really great lives don't spend very much time being comfortable at all. They are willing to look.
I keep thinking of this Pink Floyd song, "Comfortably Numb" and how those two words are kind of similar.
Nothing's wrong with being comfortable. I'm not saying everybody has to look at art all the time.
But if you're an artist, you have a job. Like if do foot massage, then you're going to have to take your shoes off. And if I don't make you take your shoes off, then I can't do a good job.
If you don't want anything that you see to ever change, if you don't want any texture for your eyeballs or your earballs or whatever, then you're just going to be comfortably numb.
I think it's the job of the artist is to add that unique, discrete piece of texture to the world that is different than something that you run into everyday.
Art has got to wiggle its way past your ordinary defenses, and anytime your defenses get penetrated there's some kind of discomfort, even if it's fun.
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Read about James Baker Hall.
[A reader suggests this link to a Web site with photographs and other work by James Baker Hall.--Feb. 5, 2008.]
NOTE: Interview subjects are promised anonymity. The answers are transcribed from a recording, which is then erased. Answers are lightly edited to improve readability. I do not necessarily share opinions expressed by interview subjects.