Simplicity Versus ComplexityThere are two extremes in life - simplicity and complexity. All other extremes are just manifestations of these. Both black and white are simple. Grey is complex (hence the reference to "grey areas"). Good and bad are both simple. Mediocrity is complex. Absolutes are simple. Relatives (meaning those things that are relative) are complex. We are in awe of the complex but we tend to value the simple. Yet the simple things in life are free and the complex things cost us dearly. As artists, we often begin with the simple and move toward the complex. This was, in fact, the history of painting up until the late nineteenth century and advent of Modern Art, when a reverse trend set in, a movement from complex forms and compositions back toward the simple, culminating in the ultimate simplicity of form - Minimalism.
Yet, at the same time as this counter trend evolved, life itself, during the twentieth century, became ever more complex. Painting took upon itself the struggle to make these complexities simple. And it failed miserably. Not only that, but artists with something really important to say have often deserted the medium entirely in favour of the cinema and its ability to more realistically handle the complexities of life in a simple manner. In any case, as painted forms became simpler, painters, or those who took it upon themselves to explain painting, began to have to rely more and more upon complex arrangements of complex words rather than visual images to explain what Modern Art, in its evolving visual simplicity, meant. In the process, artists began, more and more, to paint only for themselves and their colleagues. Artists have always been intent upon demanding respect from the public, even a certain degree of awe, if not for themselves, then certainly for their art. But as the painters' art itself grew ever simpler, it also drew less and less respect. It then fell to those critics and writers who explained such art to bestow this respect. And, in the process, painters began to abandon their message, even their ability and desire to express a message, to those wordsmiths with a talent for making the simple seem complex again.
We often think of the simple as being easy, and it is when you have nothing complex to accomplish. But if the artist is intent upon the awe and respect afforded to complexities, making such things simple is not easy - it's hard. Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying, "I'm sorry this letter is so long, I hadn't time to write a shorter one." Perhaps Albert Einstein said it even better; "Anyone who really understands his work should be able to explain it to an eight-year-old." A television set is an incredibly complex piece of electronics. I'm still in awe every time I make one blink to life. But that same TV would be of absolutely no value if some engineer hadn't taken the time, energy, and had the intellect to make operating it simple. By the same token, painters who have the ability, on their own, to make complex things simple deserve our respect. Those who expect their viewers, or some writer, to struggle to unravel the complexities in their work, or to invent them, in order to discern meaning (assuming there is any), and thereby gain respect, have fallen short. In closing, I should note too, however, that Einstein also said, "Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler."
Contributed by Lane, Jim
16 August 2001