king lear tragedy“I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic.” – Geoffrey Hill

A couple of weeks ago I picked up a second hand copy of King Lear: The Space of Tragedy by the director Grigori Kozintsev. Ostensibly a journal of the making of his outstanding 1973 film King Lear, it is also one of my favourite sorts of texts – a document which records an artist thinking.

The book ranges across huge subjects – Shakespeare, of course, but also Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Noh theatre, Gordon Craig, Antonin Artaud, Shelley, Poe, Mayakovsky, the role of the artist, the role of the poet, the real and the imagined, the difficulties of realising one’s vision, and the glory of creating a work that operates outside of one’s own being.

Kozintsev, as anyone who is familiar with his work knows, is deeply suspicious of art that takes cohesiveness as its primary goal. Lear is, of course, a work that resists simplification in any case, but Kozintsev does not even want the sword fights to move with fluidity – all and everything is to be complicated, incomplete, gnarled and obstreperous. The viewer is asked to work, not to be led by the hand.

Kozintsev writes, “The unfortunate truth is we often interpret both prose and poetry too directly. Marina Tsvetayeva wrote ‘I will never believe in prose, it doesn’t exist. I have never met it once, not even the tip of its tail… When beneath everything, behind and above everything there are gods, disasters, spirits, fates, wings, tails – what sort of “prose” can you have? When everything is a revolving globe with an inside of fire?’”

We live at a moment where ‘prose’ is becoming more prevalent and more insidious. People seem to have forgotten that prose – however prosaic – remains a created thing, a way of telling. In the recent EU referendum, simple slogans like ‘Breaking Point’, or sentences where the first and second clauses had no relationship to each other, such as ‘We are over-governed, because of the EU’ appeared as truth, simply because they had narrative coherence.

More and more I feel that the role of the artist must be to disrupt conventional thought, and to reveal that conventional thought is just that – a convention. Yes, Schoenberg said “there is still plenty of good music to be written in C major”, and there will always be room for a well written book to pass the time. But as Geoffrey Hill also said “We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other.”

We seem to be living in a time where to be complex is to be elitist. And, frankly, it’s not going well.