On Difficulty in the Arts



The Difficulties

Another difficulty

Additional examples



Some art is sometimes said to be “difficult.”  What we do we mean by this term “difficult”? 


In his book, On Difficulty (1978), critic George Steiner identifies four kinds of difficulty in poetry: contingent, modal, tactical, ontological.  I think they apply to many of the arts.


Four Difficulties

Contingent -- a cultural reference that you might have to "go look up."  Your understanding (and, presumably, enjoyment) is contingent on knowing some fact.  In the case of jazz, your enjoyment might be contingent on the experience of hearing a tune in many different versions and performances. 

Modal -- after sincerely trying to engage and understand the work, you just can't like it due to fundamental issues of taste or personal experience.

Tactical -- the artist(s) deliberately gets in your way of immediately understanding the work's meaning or story, perhaps as a way out of deepening or intensifying the experience for you, or for the pleasure in puzzlement.  (Which is more enjoyable – the tale or the telling of the tale?)  The film Pulp Fiction is my favorite example of this idea.  Speed or overwhelming complexity of music might be such a tactic.  Insider slang is probably such a tactic. 

Ontological -- the artist(s) through the work challenges the very definition of the genre or even the idea of art itself


Another difficulty

How to know if there is any meaning at all to be ferreted out?  This might be called the ambiguity of contingency, another layer of difficulty.  For example, scholars have struggled to track down the “Nicean barks” reference in Poe’s poem “To Helen,” and found no single clear referent.  Did he choose the term primarily for its sound?  How would a typical reader know when something is worth looking up, when there might not be anything there?  In painting, some signs elude interpretation, as in Bruegel's Netherlandish Proverbs.  Does the painting now become less “meaningful”?  A radical response is to put such questions of meaning (and difficulty) aside in some art forms.  As James Elkins wrote in his book Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?, “Pictures are effectively and forever without meaning.  Art history is the bruise is grown up around that injury.”


“To Helen” by Edgar Allan Poe

Free poetry found at: http://www.able2know.com




Helen, thy beauty is to me

    Like those Nicean barks of yore,

That gently, o'er a perfum'd sea,

    The weary way-worn wanderer bore

    To his own native shore.

On desperate seas long wont to roam,

    Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,

Thy Naiad airs have brought me home

    To the beauty of fair Greece,

And the grandeur of old Rome.


Lo ! in that little window-niche

    How statue-like I see thee stand!

    The folded scroll within thy hand —

A Psyche from the regions which

    Are Holy land !


a discussion of “Nicean barks” can be found at this Poe website. 


Additional Examples of The Difficulties

Tactical Difficulty

We want to see faces in paintings.  Eckersberg’s Woman in Front of a Mirror teases us, first denying us the face as we look at the back, and then offering the hope of a mirror, but cutting off that hope by blocking the view with the arm.


Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg
Woman in Front of a Mirror, 1841



Music: knowing the “Dies Irae” tune to get the reference in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

Painting: religious imagery


Music: John Cage, 4’33”

Painting: Jackson Pollock splatter paintings

Sculpture:  Donald Judd, Richard Serra


Art, Music & Ideas (MUS 115)


 Music Appreciation (MUS 202)


this page is in progress
and I will be adding examples
 from different art
forms in each difficulty

DC Meckler
revised 8-8-2007