Sunday, August 5, 2007

Accessibility/Difficulty as a Quality of Creative Expression

One quality of creative expression is its accessibility or difficulty. Although this quality can be expressed using either of two concepts, “accessibility” or “difficulty,” it is a single quality with accessibility and difficulty being inverse measures – a high degree of accessibility equals a low degree of difficulty and vice versa.

I have previously written about different types of difficulty (and thus, implicitly, different sorts of accessibility) in ethnographic writing as one form of creative expression (See Difficulty in Ethnographic Writing). In that piece, I was drawing on Reginald Shepherd’s writing in “Defining Difficulty in Poetry,” where he delineates five sorts of difficulty in artistic expression: lexical, allusive, syntactical, semantic, and formal difficulties, where in each case, difficulty results from disjuncture between readerly expectations and textual experiences, with different sorts of disjuncture arising from separate components of creative expression.

What I’d like to most emphasize here is that when it comes to artistic expression, accessibility/difficulty is an important quality (or really a set of qualities, given different varieties of difficulty) which is independent of the aesthetic merits of a work, that is, independent of whether a work manifests something profound or beautiful, independent of whether a work successfully unifies the concrete and universal, the timely and timeless (see my recent post, Great Art, Timeliness, and Timelessness).

This is actually a fairly simple and straightforward point, but I make it in opposition to common claims or assumptions that either accessibility or difficulty signal either good or bad art. (For example, I recently attended a conference on creative writing at Florida State University. During a panel discussion on poetic difficulty, one audience member continually asserted that poetic success was measured by “communication,” that accessibility fostered communication, difficulty hampered it, with the implication that accessibility is inherently good in itself and difficulty inherently bad.)

Similar assumptions are often made with regard to a related quality of creative expression – its popularity or obscurity (like accessibility and difficulty, these are simply inverse ways to regard the same basic quality). (These qualities are related not in that most accessible art is particularly popular nor that most obscure art is necessarily difficult. For that matter, a work’s level of popularity or obscurity can change over time without its level of difficulty particularly changing, e.g. a 1930s movie comedy I briefly mentioned in “Great Art, Timeliness, and Timelessness,” Earthworm Tractors, is now a quite obscure film, though it starred a then popular comedian, Joe E. Brown. It’s neither difficult now nor then. Instead, the relationship between accessibility/difficulty and popularity/obscurity is more that most popular works tend to be relatively accessible and most difficult works tend to be more obscure – it’s hard to imagine the free jazz saxophone work of Albert Ayler ever being hugely popular – though there are plenty of exceptions – inventor of free jazz Ornette Coleman will be playing at Bonnaroo.) Some argue that either popularity or obscurity signal good or bad art, something I argued against in my posts “Miles Davis’ Ferrari, or Popularity and Art” and “Art, Black Art, and Seriousness in Bebop.”

With accessibility/difficulty as an independent quality of creative expression, art that is profound or expresses beauty or is otherwise of high aesthetic merit can be either accessible or difficult. Much of Robert Frost’s poetry, or Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, is fairly accessible. Orff’s Carmina Burana or Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring represent musically accessible works (perhaps deceptively so) in that most listeners are immediately able to ascertain basic features of these works (and most tend to immediately react positively or negatively to them as well – though both also have great depth in the sense that many subtle features of the works are typically missed on initial or superficial listenings). On the other hand, T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is not what I’d consider accessible. Free jazz, serial music, and aleatory music in different ways present formal difficulty for many listeners – a feature they share in common is an often minimal distinction between musical sound and noise, making it difficult to ascertain such works’ status as music at all (see “Free Jazz and the End of the History of Jazz” and “The End of the History of Music”). Likewise, when it comes to bad art, both accessible and difficult examples could be found (an exercise I’ll refrain from here, because I don’t think it would add anything to the basic point and would simply be snarky).

Accessibility/Difficulty is a quality not just of art but of any form of creative expression, including ethnography. I’ve argued before that ethnography can function in an artistic mode, and at the least, many ethnographies have their artistic moments, but ethnography need not function that way, nor is that what makes it ethnography (see “Ethnography as Art or Science” and “Ethnographic Research Methods and Ethnographic Writing”). Ethnography has as a primary goal the elucidation or explanation of some cultural context. This makes a difference. With art, accessibility/difficulty is a quality independent of other considerations, whereas with ethnography, some forms of difficulty do comprise barriers to basic functions of the text as ethnography.

As I wrote in “Difficulty in Ethnographic Writing:”

“One major difference in poetic and ethnographic writing has to do with the goals or motivations for writing. With poetry, a primary goal is to create a unique sensuous object with its own qualities to be experienced in itself (something that happens with any text, but something that is a primary function of literary writing, including poetry). The poem may make reference to something in the world outside the poem through the sense of the words, but it need not necessarily do so, and in any case, that is not the main raison d’etre for poetry (and if you want to communicate something directly and clearly about the world, there are far better means than poetry). Ethnography at its best might have poetic or other literary qualities, but that’s not what makes it ethnography. Unlike poetry, a definite (and usually ideally clear) connection between the sense of the text and the context in the world outside the text which is its reference is a necessary component of ethnography – it wouldn’t be writing culture if it weren’t definitely writing about culture.

“As a result, one difference between my writing about difficulty in ethnography and Shepherd’s in relation to poetry is a difference in attitude toward difficulty. Shepherd is interested in difficulty as an aspect of poetry which is neither inherently good nor bad – since reading poetry is about experiencing the poem as an object of experience in its own right, various difficulties in grasping its meaning are not bad per se, and are often important components in the experience of pleasure from the poem. In the case of ethnography, where communication about something in the world is a key consideration, in most cases difficult writing, to the extent it creates a barrier to understanding, is more straightforwardly something to be avoided – though there are interesting exceptions to this as well.”

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