If you want to see an illustration, indeed an embodiment, of the problems that contemporary visual artists have in interesting the mass media, watch a few clips online of artists trying to explain their work to their parents. They are part of a documentary called How to Explain It to My Parents, by Dutch artists Sander Plug and Lernert Engelberts. The film shows nine sequences of Dutch conceptual artists sitting at a table in a grey room and trying to explain their work to one or both parents.
The entire film was shown at festivals around the world last year; you can see many of the segments on video sites such as Vimeo. The best piece to start with is the one the filmmakers have put on their own site, lernertandsander.com. The segment is the first of the interviews, a conversation between Dutch multimedia-hipster artist Arno Coenen and his dad.
Coenen's work includes large mosaics and installations, and usually has some reference to pop culture and advertising. In this conversation, he attempts to explain a work he did that involved brewing his own beer, a full-flavoured ale, then packaging it as a generic mass-market beer, with the label "Eurotrash Hell." He made an ad campaign and sales booth for this beer, a brand identity - a concept he has to explain to his polite but resistant dad. He grudgingly (and inarticulately) goes on to try to explain that he was subverting corporate branding strategies.
Then a remarkable thing happens, a moment when this stocky and confident grown man becomes a petulant teenager again. His dad asks him what the piece looked like in a museum and the artist asks him why he didn't go see it for himself. It was in the museum for 10 days. There is a long silence before the father answers that he was too busy. The son refuses to explain any more. It's a moment of great tension and unhappiness and poignance. And it sums up, in a way, the whole symbolism of the confrontation between baffled parents - representing the whole vast, unhip, generally educated, curious but mystified public - and the outwardly arrogant but fundamentally insecure and nervous artists.
It's troubling that in most of these dialogues the artists begin with a defensive attitude. They have been doing art that is likely to raise a parent's eyebrows. One guy has been doing plastic surgery on his face; he seems to want to fight with his parents about it before they do. One guy has erased all the birds from Hitchcock's movie The Birds; another has filmed a lot of still pictures in video and shows the motionless films to point out the static in them.
When the artists get to the tricky part of explaining their motivations, they invariably fall into a rather abstract art-speak language that sounds normal and comprehensible in the context of a learned journal. But as soon as you hear them say, "It lets me play with the notion of authenticity," or, "I explore what it means to negate something or to do something non-productive" - phrases art critics hear a few times a day - you see on the parents' concentrating faces an absolute blank, and you realize that those are in fact frustratingly vague ideas. The video guy says, "I'm trying to equate that interference with the idea of chance and to give that extra layer of randomness a sort of spiritual significance." His father says he doesn't quite see the spiritual aspect, and in fact I don't either.
But I was also frustrated for the artists, because the parents' questions so often turned on that boring old question of "is it art?" - a question that itself is a barrier to conversation. ("Is it good?" is a much more fruitful discussion. Coenen's beer prank, for example, is certainly art but still rather dull, a one-line gag.)
A couple of the artists comment pointedly on how their parents haven't taken much interest in their work up to now. There is a bitterness there that seems so strangely vulnerable in these grown-up people. It too is a barrier to communication. The encounters are a fantastic metaphor for the society at large. After Coenen briefly describes his beer-branding exercise, he says curtly, "Do you understand what I'm saying?" Politely but equally firmly, his father replies, "Not yet."