The sound and fury of art

Click to follow

"Brahms is the perfect composer for the smaller emotions", an acquaintance of mine once remarked at university.

"Brahms is the perfect composer for the smaller emotions", an acquaintance of mine once remarked at university. I think he thought this a rather impressive aperçu, but he regretted sharing it pretty quickly, since the rest of us spent the next hour speculating on what he might have in mind. The frustration you feel when you're just five pence short of a parking fee? The pleasure you get from piercing the foil on a new jar of coffee? Or the disappointment that accompanies the discovery that you've recorded a 40-minute programme on a 30-minute videotape? We thought it richly comic, this idea - that ambitious art, symphonic art, should aim at anything less than grand passions.

I do wonder now, though, which of us was the more callow - him, with his posey condescension or us, with our assumption that art went supersize on the emotions or it was nothing. The incident came to mind again when considering Bruce 0Nauman's new installation in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, a piece called Raw Materials. This, it turns out, is a kind of conceptual K-tel compilation, using recordings from other Nauman sound and video works to create a net of sound in the Tate's vast atrium space. Speakers on the walls play looped tapes of voices - ranting, murmuring, hectoring and singing - so that as you walk through the hall you fade from one to the next. The effect is, appropriately enough, loopy.

Being mad must be a little bit like this, subject to sinister exhortations ("Live and die, die and die") and frantic repetitions ("Work, work, work, work" or "I'm boring, you're boring, we're boring, this is boring".) And if you're not actually mad already, you feel this might help get you there. "It's a little bit annoying, to be honest," one gallery-goer told a journalist, when invited to react to the piece. Even Mr Nauman seems to agree. How long, he was asked, would people be able to listen before getting twitchy? He really couldn't say, he replied. "I can seldom stand to be around my work for that long."

The previous work in this space, Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project, did not waste much time on the smaller emotions, even though its artist was partly inspired by the British passion for small talk about the weather. It doubled the apparent size of the hall with a mirror and filled one end of it with a giant disc of light. It didn't make you feel small things - it made you feel small, and this appeared to be a sensation that people enjoyed very much. They literally wallowed in it, in fact, laying themselves out on the Tate's concrete floor like crocodiles on a sandbank.

Irritation and annoyance are another matter though. And the fact that they are an inescapable part of Raw Materials raises an intriguing question about how art can deal with feelings that we're instinctively inclined to dismiss as uninspiring or unworthy. I think you could make a crude case that the repertoire of emotional responses to art has increased over the past century. But since the big-ticket items were taken pretty early in the history of art (awe, reverence, pity, consolation), modern art has effectively been obliged to fill in the gaps. Modern art is notably good at confusion, anxiety, embarrassment and boredom - in practice, more salient elements of our psychological landscape than feelings of piety or transcendental beauty, but often problematic by reason of their very mundanity.

And there's another difficulty too. The artist who aims to summon feelings of awe and reverence in a viewer needn't really fear any leakage between subject matter and the work itself. If the spectators confuse admiration for the content with admiration for the artistry, it's no skin off his nose. But the artist who wants to conjure feelings of embarrassment or awkwardness in an audience is in a slightly trickier position, since it isn't always going to be easy to tell whether the embarrassment is a symptom of artistic success or artistic failure. Is the work "about" embarrassment, or is it simply embarrassing? Is it "about" disgust, or just disgusting?

By the sound of it, Bruce Nauman has an attractively unstuffy attitude to such matters. He seems sanguine about the fact that some of the visitors to Tate Modern don't even notice that they're passing through an art work, so inured have we become to the Babel of modern life. So he's probably equally philosophical about the fact that quite a lot of visitors who do notice it will find Raw Materials baffling and irritating, without stopping to ask whether it has interesting things to say about bafflement and irritation. He presumably understands by now that such category confusions go with the territory.

Contrary to my youthful assumption, it's no small matter dealing with small emotions.