Never Look Away
What exactly is art? What is reality? What is true?
These are the questions I asked myself repeatedly when I was watching Never Look Away, the film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Sometimes when I look at modern abstract art, I have trouble recognising the “effort” behind them—like the officer said in the beginning of the film, some of them look like the work of a six-year-old.
The scene when Harry led Kurt around to see other students’ work expresses similar confusion of “what is art.” Harry said to Kurt that he needed “an idea” to be an artist. They went past the girl who slashes her canvas, and Harry commented that her work was boring. Students like the girl may come up with thousands of different ideas, but those ideas are meaningless because they have no value to the artists themselves. Kurt’s first works means no value to him, just as his professor commented, “this is not you.”
Author Maugham wrote in his Moon and Six Pence that “to recognise it[beauty] you must repeat the adventure of the artist. It is a melody that he sings to you, and to hear it again in your own heart you want knowledge and sensitiveness and imagination.” His line basically delivers the idea that in order to understand a piece of artwork, one must experience what the artist has experienced, otherwise they’ll never understand what the art truly means. The professor in the film also said that art is valuable to the artist because it means their experience and who they are. His grease artwork is what defines his past and his present identity—the grease made him the man he is now by nurturing him and teaching him love. That’s why he said to Kurt, “this is not you,” because the works Kurt created are only random ideas, and these ideas do not define who he is.
Kurt later says in his interview, that “what is true is beautiful.” The truth is what matters to him, and reality, which represents the truth, is consistent (“stimmig” in German, also means harmonious in a musical sense). The consistence creates his story and his experience, defining who he is. If he just copies the photos, he is making something true to the objective reality, and the art will have no difference than the photos. But by blurring the photos, he is making something true to himself, to his own experience in the reality, to his own interpretation and feeling of the reality.
I think the definition that art is something true to the artist is a satisfying answer to me. Art is not about techniques or “ideas,” but is about the meaning it has for the artist themselves. I could not understand the recent work, the one with duct tape and a banana, because it is so simple that a six-year-old can produce the same thing. But I will still consider it as a piece of art if it means something true to the artist’s experience or identity. Creating art is not competing with others for new ideas, but a process of recognising yourself and expressing who you truly are.