If I hang a black square in an art gallery the question I am often asked is, “What is it supposed to be?” I presume this implies that what I hang on a wall in an art gallery is 'supposed' to uphold some sort of value and meaning, and that, to the person asking the question, these qualities are missing from my work. If the qualities where present the person would know what 'it was supposed to be', but an object like a blank black square is thought to represent fraudulent activity in relation to artistic values. My black square requires no skill to create and it has no story to tell or profound meaning, and therefore it is considered by many art lovers to be of dubious value in relation to their understanding about what an art object should represent. Most people who walk into art galleries believe art is about recognisable qualities, and when you remove these qualities you often get a hostile response to what you claim to be is your work of art.
It is this hostility that interests me. I find that we have all been conditioned to think the experience we should find in an art gallery is knowable. That is to say that the experience we learn to expect to find when we look at art is an experience that can be recognised like all other experiences we encounter in day-after-day life. This is not what I believe, and to me art is an unknown experience in my day-to-day view of the world. It is the opposite to what the majority think art is about, and this makes you something of an outcast in the eyes of those who look to art to bring meaning and value into their lives. To me art is the one experience that my mind works to stop me sensing when I look at an object or an event, and I try to create work that generates a state of mind that is only encountered when confronted by an object that I do not know how to recognise. Anything could do this. Any object could be a work of art that provokes this experience that is only 'felt' when we face the unknown, but few objects will give us this experience. Few objects do this because we are born to look at the world around us to find recognisable things and not uncertainty in what we see. When the values of what we expect to find in an object are missing, as they are with a meaningless black square exhibited in an art gallery, then we find ourselves confronted with an object that provokes, rather than suppresses uncertainty in what we see. This, of course, puts the artist who seeks to explore this sensation at odds with people who look to understand everything in their world. Such people walk into art galleries to fulfil their powers of recognition, and they don't come to art to be disturbed by something they do not know how to recognise. We find, therefore, that when confronted by an object that fails to uphold what they expect the response is to reject the object that is provoking this sensation of the unknown.
Our minds generate a sensation of learned understanding towards the Hobbema painting on the left, but a sense of uncertainty towards the Pollock (detail) on the right. This reveals a behavioural response that attracts us to recognisable art, because it fosters a 'feeling' of safety and assurance, but rejection towards unrecognisable art, because this provokes recall of our old natural 'animal' intuitive way of sensing what we see. We still inherit this old way of sensing but our intelligence has evolved to dominate our view of the world and suppress this old experience in all we see and do.
Rejecting anything that provokes a sensation of the unknown is a ancient response and it is not just confined to art. Few of us realise we are conditioned by life itself, and by the way we learn to survive, to look for what we recognise. If I failed to learn to recognise a bus then the chances are that one day when I cross a road I will get run-over by one of these types of vehicle. The chances are that I won't survive very long because I have failed to learn to recognise buses, and so, just as it was essential for our distant ancestors to learn to recognise tigers and lions, we are born to look towards ever greater powers of certainty as a way of sensing what confronts us. It is therefore a natural response, when we find ourselves confronted by any object or event that fails to fit into this model of how we respond, to remove as much uncertainty from what we see. We look to project the best idea we can call to mind to stop the object provoking the sensation of the unknown. This is what most people do in art galleries. They look for ideas they have learned to apply to things they find in art galleries, and this response is what a meaningless black square hanging on a wall challenges. It disrupts your learned idea of art and brings to mind a sensation of the unknown, and it is here that the art lover and many artist part company.
The art lover, and artists who work to satisfy this audiences craving for meaningful creative work, look towards recognising objects that uphold established principles. These principles, in art, have always been about workmanship, engaging subjective content, or fine performance, etc. and these criteria enforce upon the art experience a class of object that we know how to recognise. Remove these established principles in art and you are faced with objects that begin to provoke an underlying behavioural response from the human mind. This response emerges with loss of recognition and has evolved to make us look to suppress the unknown from our view of the world. Because of this response you will 'feel' disturbed and unsure when confronted by something in an art gallery that fails to display the values that create your idea of the art experience. You will look to find a way to reassert your control over your powers of recognition, and the easiest way to do this is to reject anything that fails to display the required values that are expected of art.
A simple black square holds very little value in art. It does not try to represent something other than what it is, and it is an object that you have to look towards not understanding. There is nothing profound or meaningful in this object, and if you find yourself thinking up such ideas then you need to realise your mind is working to find a way of suppressing the sensation of the unknown that a meaningless black square will begin to provoke from your mind. This is what we do in life, and so we find ourselves thinking that this meaningless black square has been placed in an art gallery to say something profound. We think about gestalt, or that this work has something to say about social values, or even ideas as bizarre as suggesting a black square is a gateway to an alien world - reminding me of the black obelisk from the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is very difficult to create an object that stops people doing this. Trying to look without imposing any ideas over your experience of an object creates a negative response, and we seek to suppress this experience in what we see. We look to dismiss the work as fraudulent art, or to find the nearest idea we can apply to what we see to rid our thoughts of any sense of an older way of looking at the world through instinct.
C J Hollins 26 February 2014