Why a cottage in a lake is bad art

Most, if not all, creativity can be explained as novel combinations of pre-existing ideas or objects.11Note that I’m not arguing that novel combinations is the definition of creativity.

In the early 20th century, a varied combination of representational art and technical drawings (viewing objects from different angles) gave birth to cubism. Shortly thereafter, Coco Chanel combined the practicality and silhouettes of menswear with women’s haute couture. And then Pollock combined the idea of indirect observation (established since long in the sciences) with painting, using the canvas to project events in higher dimensions with paint as a medium. Though they probably didn’t think about their work in this way.

But not just any novel combination of pre-existing ideas or objects will do. Substituting the candles in an oversized birthday cake with AK47s would be a novel combination, but hardly great art. Sure, someone might argue that the “tension” between the candles’ symbolism for lived life and the life taken by the AK47s has some kind of meaning, but that is simplistic. Why? Because the combination lacks depth and compactness.

By depth I mean room for exploration within the bounds of the work. Allowing exploration (far) outside the bounds of the work is meaningless – all works would allow for the same explorations differing only in their starting points.

By compactness I mean how conceptually close the objects or ideas combined are. This matters because a novel combination of things that are conceptually close tends to pointedly challenge the status quo (or the combination wouldn’t be novel). Also, novel combinations of conceptually close concepts are tiny in number compared to novel combinations of disparate things, and scarcity attracts.

For example, painting and technical drawing are close concepts – in technique (putting colour on a canvas) and objective (depicting an object or idea) – but Picasso’s and Braque’s novel combination of the two enabled explorations of both form and meaning. Direct plotting of indirect observations of phenomena, common in science (think trajectory of a bouncing ball), is a concept close to painting – they both project a usually higher-dimension space onto 2D space – but Pollock’s indirect plotting of his 3D movements combined with with abstract art (or sculpting if you want) was novel. The concepts Chanel combined – menswear thinking and womenswear – are today so common (and seem so obvious) that it’s hard to imagine the combination could be novel. When concepts so close are considered novel, it can hint at unexplored space in the reasons why (and it seems to me that fashion is still exploring the boundaries between the sexes).

This brings us to the cottage in the lake. Wannås Slott, a park for modern art exhibitions in the south of Sweden, had a red-and-white cottage placed tilted in a small lake and with sound coming from inside it. Why they put it on the cover of their brochure I don’t know; I find it to be a good example of bad art.

Art at Wannås Slott
Art at Wannås Slott

An out-of-place object is the simplest possible of novel combination; combining an object with the concept out-of-place makes it novel by definition. You can do it with any object. Put a guitar in an aquarium, a rock in a womb, a megaphone in outer space, and you’ve got novel combinations. Dead simple, infinitely variable. A cottage in water is a trivial out-of-place object. Of course, it was also turned upside-down and had a recording play from inside it, but neither is reason to get excited.

In front of the lake with the cottage, there was a bench. After sitting on it for a while it unexpectedly started shaking. That is, it combined an object intended for rest or contemplation with alerting physical movement. Movement and rest in combination is well established in cradles and rocking chairs, but alerting movement is novel; in an idyllic park and unexpected as art. Of course, the symmetry of stirring both literally and metaphorically is neat. Great? No, but decidedly better than a cottage in a lake.