Good Art Explains Mystery Through Manners


Jack Portman

Art should function to induce some form of self-interrogation. It should focus on the unknown and the unknowable, the uncertain and the liminal, and by exploring these spaces, force viewers to consider that which they otherwise would rather not. Art should not tell you everything; rather, its inherent ambiguity should afford the viewer an immense freedom to interpret and experience the work within the context of their own critical framework. Essentially, things shouldn’t be clear, at least not immediately, and the artist’s “purpose,” if such thing must exist, should not be self-evident or immediately revealed. Art that is accordingly basal in its conveyance of any idea should be regarded with skepticism.

When I think of artists who leave no room for thought, who tell rather than propose or hint, I think of the poet Rupi Kaur. Kaur leaves no ambiguities for her audience to chew on: she provides an obvious and self-evident answer to the burning question “what does this mean?”

Kaur’s poetry, if one can call it poetry, is purely aesthetic. Her reliance on lower-case letters, lazy line breaks and simplistic illustrations fosters a transcendent and blissfully spiritual ambiance. However, the imbecilic simplicity of her verse invites no questions.

It possesses no nuance to speak of and explores no ambiguity. Kaur’s readers can come away from a poem having fully understood her intent by simply having read the poem like any other piece of text in everyday life. Kaur requires no critical thought on the reader’s part, no significant engagement with the text. One simply must be literate and have a vague understanding of the metaphor as a literary device to deduce Kaur’s intended meaning in a given poem. Her reader is not initially perplexed and thus not forced to consider the stylistic elements of her work (fortunate, because Kaur employs few to no stylistic elements in her poems). Such is why Kaur’s poetry is popular: it is so accessible as to require no critical thought at all.

The blatant and self-evident nature of Kaur’s poetry is extremely restrictive: it demonstrates how art that is produced to appeal to massive groups of people essentially revokes the critical freedom of the viewer. When critics approach a work of art, they should be free to engage with the piece fully, to wrestle with its various components and formulate a reasoned and compelling response to the work. Kaur provides no such opportunity. Her poetry either requires no response or is its own response entirely.

The profundity and depth of Kaur’s poetry is essentially illusory. She grapples with intense and important themes, but does so without the linguistic and aesthetic tools of a good poet. Consequently, her work cannot evolve beyond a certain surface-level parameter. The full complexity and profound implications of Kaur’s thematic interest are deserving of a rigorous consideration, however, Kaur is seemingly disinterested in rigor, both creatively and critically.

I think a fairly analogous occurrence of mainstream art pseudo-profundity may be Donna Tartt’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch.

The 784-page tome claims to be a coming-of-age story and an exploration of art and philosophy, however, as The New Yorker book critic James Wood writes, “its tone, language, and story belong to children’s literature.” The narrative structure of The Goldfinch consistently falters, and Tartt’s prose recalls Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Expectedly, The Goldfinch doesn’t ask a question or leave the reader with anything to unpack (or at least anything worth unpacking). Rather, it presents itself unequivocally, in the same way Kaur’s poetry expresses itself wholly after a single read.

Art should be difficult to some extent; an effort should be made to engage with a piece of art  to understand its value. Kaur’s work denies the possibility of such an effort by telling rather than alluding. While its accessibility may be said to increase the public’s exposure to poetry, its dearth of linguistic nuance renders Kaur’s work almost a facsimile of poetic imitation.