Easy is the New Difficult

I want an art where the philosophical questions posed in the work are answered in the experience of the art itself.

| Spring 2017

  • "The Thinker", one of the few sculptures dedicated specifically to the depiction of cognition.
    Photo by Flickr/Christopher Brown
  • Much contemporary art is often dismissed as easy, eliciting the stereotypical remarks of the mother standing in front of a Pollock, ‘My child could do that.’
    Photo by Flickr/Muchele M.F.
  • Once easy has plateaued into a consistent and constant condition — an ever-present pulse like Wi-Fi — then difficulty is not as difficult as we had once imagined it.
    Photo by Flickr/Luca Conti

Easy is the new difficult. It is difficult to be difficult, but it is even more difficult to be easy. Easy is not easy. Easy takes effort, just as difficulty takes effort. I want an easy art, an art of pure pleasure, an art that is completely understandable by anyone viewing it, an art that doesn’t leave you puzzled, an art that ties up every loose end, dots every i and crosses every t, an art that leaves nothing to chance, ensuring that the experience of engaging in this art will be the one that is desired by the artist. I want an art that leaves no nagging questions, is insanely simple in its goals, and meets every one of them unequivocally. I want an art where the philosophical questions posed in the work are answered in the experience of the work itself. I want an art that my mother can understand.

Sisyphus’s uphill struggles are consumed with brute physicality, but downhill, there is time for contemplation. Sisyphus’s travails, then, are bifurcated between easy and difficult, between body and mind. Camus proposed that the downhill interval was the apotheosis and salvation of Sisyphus’s torment, a recurrent moment in which he was able to philosophically to reconcile his eternal damnation before proceeding uphill once more. With reconciliation comes peace; after that, difficulty is less difficult — ease and difficulty collapse into one. “Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable,” wrote Camus, for which we might substitute the words easy and difficult.

Sisyphus’s difficulty, legendarily remarked upon, is quantifiable; his interval, less so. Ease is vanquished because it’s too internalized; few sweat when they think. The depiction of thought is difficult. The depiction of difficulty is easy, making for compelling images: images of muscle, sweat, exhaustion, struggle, and damnation are easily rendered. I’m thinking of the sculpture of Atlas bearing his globe in Rockefeller Center, as opposed to Rodin’s The Thinker, one of the few sculptures dedicated specifically to depiction of cognition. Atlas is an empathetic figure: looking at him, we are reminded of how light by comparison our own burdens are. Like Sisyphus, Atlas carries a warning about crime and punishment; we might be well advised to behave in a certain way so as to avoid ending up in such a situation. In both narrative and depiction, Atlas reaches out to us and in this way, his struggles sets the stage for an empathetic, relational, and social art. Atlas’s condition is couched in narrative; there’s a reason why he’s burdened and there’s a potential escape from it. We know, for instance, that Atlas tried to trick Heracles into bearing his burden for a moment while he went to pick some apples. Heracles obliged for a moment, then quickly caught on, throwing the ball back to Atlas who, to this day, continues to bear the burden. But the story is not over: he’s still on the lookout for someone else to take over. Difficulty is ever-evolving; there’s always another chapter to be written.

The Thinker, on the other hand, has no narrative or mythological basis to which we may relate. As a result, he is static, expressing a state rather than a story. This is the condition of easy. In comparison to Atlas, his is a metaphysical stasis. Whereas difficulty is related, ease is singular, detached, self-absorbed, and onanistic. The isolated gesture is still relatable — who among us has not been lost in deep thought? — but it’s non-specific; we haven’t a clue what he’s thinking about. The Thinker is reflective; the sculpture reproduces a similar contemplative state in the viewer. But thinking exists for one, making his — and our — gesture isolated. Nor will there be any resolution because, unlike difficulty, the problem is not articulated. Easy is mute, vague, and ambiguous, lacking in emotional temperature. Is The Thinker‘s situation easier than Atlas’s? Absolutely. But does The Thinker have it easy? We don’t know.

Although compared to difficulty, easy is less visible (often invisible), there are cases in which difficulty is rendered equally indiscernible, as in the case of virtuosity, where one is so good at what they do that they make difficulty look easy. In virtuosity, any trace of difficulty is eliminated, entirely eclipsed by easy. Think of the seemingly ease with which George Harrison played guitar: what didn’t show was the difficulty, the proverbial ten-thousand hours and the resultant bloodied fingers. Professionalism eradicates difficulty, rendering skill as anti-skill, a machine that seamlessly transforms difficult into easy. Hollywood as dream machine, industrial magic and light. The professional athlete’s playing field or the rock band’s stage are frictionless venues. The only place that such frictionlessness allegedly exists is in Heaven. In this way, easy is a window, a glimpse on to the divine.

Difficult and easy as two sides of a coin. Sometimes you get to easy by going through difficult. Difficult is the foundation upon which easy is built, reminding us that, easy is or was, in fact, difficult to attain. But easy can also just as easily be difficult to maintain. The state of easy is fragile: with one small wisp, the bottom drops out, throwing easy back into difficult. In this way, easy is a portal to difficult, which then is, in turn, a portal back to easy. The endless cycles of difficult and easy are, in fact, truly Sisyphean.

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