Art doesn’t have to be about anything to be good. In fact, the easier it is to say what a work is about, the less interesting that work becomes. The greatest art takes a lifetime to understand; the slightest takes a moment. And if it really is reducible to an explicit message, is it actually art at all?
I love the scene in DA Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Dont Look Back, where the young Bob Dylan is interviewed by a journalist who demands to know what his message is. “Walk tall and always carry a lightbulb,” he replies.
Of course, Dylan didn’t have a message – or so he explains in Martin Scorsese’s 2005 film No Direction Home – and the reason he changed his music and lyrics so profoundly in the mid-60s, from the agitprop of his early folk songs to the tumbled words of Desolation Row, was precisely to escape from people who thought they understood him. It was a self-conscious defence of the idea of art.
Visual artists today have a lot to learn from Dylan – or from Mark Rothko, or Wassily Kandinsky, or frankly anyone who has created real art with real art’s difficulties. Yet they could also learn from, say, an 18th-century furniture designer, for beauty is better than a big idea.
The most deadening influence on art in our time is the belief that content matters more than style. If you look back on the artists who have won the Turner prize since the 1980s, or the artists most often mentioned in the media these days, what they have in common is a message. Artists like Marc Quinn, Antony Gormley and Tracey Emin – all have very clear points to make. Once you’ve understood them, what’s left to say?
Real art doesn’t have a message, doesn’t necessarily say anything. It is an arrangement of shapes, a pattern of words. If you want an antidote to this idea of art, watch Bob Dylan manically arranging and rearranging words on a shop sign he and the band spotted one day. That is art.