There is a painting hanging in New York’s Museum of Modern Art that is a piece of cotton painted bright blue and mounted on plywood. It is by Yves Klein and is titled Blue Monochrome. It is exactly what it sounds like, a bright blue rectangle, about 2m x 1.5m, with no other discernible features.
And it’s worth up to US$2mil. Maybe even US$3mil.
How could you possibly pay so much for something that is essentially just adornment?
Welcome to the world of fine art. I grappled with a similar issue this past week while attending a workshop for writers and directors. Its objective was to challenge young Malaysian filmmakers to create films of high enough quality to be showcased at film festivals worldwide.
After a week, I learnt that I am clearly not what they’re looking for.
This is what it was like. You, lowly writer, are at the foot of a mountain. Up above, so far away that you can’t even really see the top, are these mentors. They want to help you better yourself, but they don’t throw down a map, or a rope or anything. They say, this is what climbing means, and you have to figure it all out yourself.
Every evening was spent watching artistic short films. Every night had me going back to my room wondering … “huh?”
One film was text juxtaposed with sped-up images of TV commercials. Another portrayed workers showing off their tattoos while sitting in the back of a speeding pickup truck. Yet another was about random snatches of conversation around a campfire.
The question that ran through my head was not, “How can I make movies as good as these”, but rather “What on Earth am I missing?”
By the middle of the week I realised that the mentors watched movies with the context of years of studying film. Certain motifs, foreign to my naive brain, were immediately recognisable to them.
Things happening over and over again in close-up? Indicates routine. Semi-naked man has a nightingale tattoo? Homosexual undertones.
Every scene had the potential to convey more than just the dialogue. There may be something that catches the eye, to plant a suspicion that there is more underneath. And viewers are encouraged to not just accept surface explanations but to explore further.
But even the filmmakers are not always certain their point will get through. One mentor was a Filipino director who said that one of his movies didn’t feel right when he was editing it. Suddenly, he came up with the solution: a scene that was just black right in the middle of the film.
Although on the surface, the film seemed to be about the everyday life of two boys living in the slums of Davao City, it was in fact a damning indictment of the city’s death squads. And to the filmmaker, that scene in black conveyed what he wanted to say.
He admitted this would mean possibly alienating his audience. People might get up and leave. He gathered his crew around and asked, what should he do? Should he please his audience or serve his vision?
The crew members, his close friends, scolded him. They worked with him because they trusted his vision. As a result, the final cut contains a 10-minute stretch where the film is black and all that can be heard is the sound of rippling water. As one reviewer wrote, “That was enough to drive one viewer at the screening to ask if there were technical problems.”
Nevertheless, this film went on to garner multiple awards at international film festivals, with one of the organisers stating that “It is an innovative, experimental, even miraculous work, a unique blend of documentary and fiction, which returns us to the fundamental question of the past and the future: what is cinema?”
Here comes the crux. Was it pretentious self-indulgence? Or an artist trying to convey his point honestly? I prefer to believe it was the latter, based on the fact he asked his crew about it. On top of that, I understand there were many other elements of the film that were daring and innovative. Ten minutes of black was just the most sensational.
This ability to push boundaries, even in ways the general public doesn’t understand, should be lauded. I think the danger is when it isn’t honest, when it’s calculated to impress or to effect.
What happens when you criticise? Is it dismissed out of hand, with the guy at the top closing himself off from the populace, saying “it is the public who doesn’t understand”? For, if the only ones you believe are the sycophants, then they’re the only ones you end up serving.
I think, at those times, it is our duty as the public to point out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. And if those at the top ignore the feedback and become a parody of themselves, then maybe – maybe – they should be pulled down.
What is the meaning of monochrome blue? Pompous, indulgent work that insists it is of value? Or is it hiding something underneath? Is it there to serve the public? Or just the artist?
What I got out of the workshop is a new way of looking at the maxim that good art doesn’t just entertain, it inspires. And you inspire by telling truths, either about the world or your inner nature.
So art is not always accessible, but the best art will be cognisant that it serves not just itself but all those who consume it. If you want to understand better how a painting of all blue can be worth millions, then read about it. Learn about it, experience it, and not merely on the surface but dive into it in depth. Examine the evidence, note the contradictions, find the consistent patterns.
But be aware that at the end of the day, we each interpret the truth our own way, and maybe without a rope or a map, we have to figure out ourselves what it all means.
Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.