Today, caught out in the rain at the Quad cinema in Derby, I played a round of crazy golf with a difference. It was indoors for starters – inside the art gallery space at the back of the cinema. And each hole was designed as an interactive work of art, enabling you to putt your ball around the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg, into the mouth of a kneeling man (who then pooped it out again) or through a maze of walls and barbed wire representing an armed border crossing. It was a diverting enough way to spend half an hour on a rainy afternoon, but the intention wasn’t just to be fun, but to make you think about the issues each hole presented – about police brutality, the environmental impact of cruise ships, and so forth.
The problem I found was that the accompanying labels for each hole were just a little bit too didactic, a little bit too telling me what to think rather than just telling me to think. Do football games between African and European teams represent the nexus of colonial exploitation and post-colonial struggle? Well, maybe, but while I’m nudging my golf ball around a mushroom-cloud shaped heap of miniature footballs covered in batik fabric, perhaps I’d prefer to make up my own mind about the symbolism.
I’ve argued before on this blog that all constructed narratives, even supposedly escapist fantasy novels, are inherently political. Visual art arguably has the prerogative to be apolitical if it wants to, to be pretty pictures and nothing more, and yet I’ve frequently found that, as today, art galleries are keen to spoon-feed us the Political Messages behind their displays, usually some variant on post-Marxism. Now I’m an incorrigible old leftie but I find these messages irritating, and I doubt anyone with differing views is going to be persuaded. Books with a similar lack of subtlety – the one I’ve read most recently being Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, a piece of right-wing militaristic propaganda thinly disguised as science fiction – leave me similarly unimpressed.
Better, I think, simply to present a compelling story, or an interesting piece of art, and let people explore it in their own ways and come to their own conclusions. The problem with this approach, of course, is that they might come to the wrong conclusions. They might decide that, for example, your supposedly anti-war film actually makes war look really awesome, and where’s the nearest recruiting station? (Director François Truffaut famously observed that it’s impossible to make a truly anti-war film.)
Well, maybe they will get hold of the wrong end of the proverbial. But that’s the risk you take when you put your art into the world. Death of the author and all that – just because you’re the creator, you don’t get to decide what your work means. And, if my reaction today is in any way typical, if you try to tell people what to think about it, they’ll just get annoyed.
Still, the crazy golf was fun.