Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

The world of me, continued

September 6, 2010 - 8:08pm -- Carol Diehl

Doris Salcedo, Shibboleth (2008), Tate Modern, London

Thanks for the thoughtful comments on the post below, and if you didn’t read them before, please do. They are all worth reprinting, but here are two snippets:

“beebe” said: The problem at this point is systemic. Having somewhat recently gone through an MFA program, the main focus was on the statement--talking about the work, weaving a skein of bullshit around the work. The language surrounding the work and your inevitable defense of the language (and, secondarily of course, the work) is more important than actively making better work.

From “CAP”: Even critics want to take their cue from the artist's best intentions, in advancing an interpretation or assessment. But this really reflects a lack of confidence in an historical framework and personal intuition. The critic turns to intention to skirt thornier issues of style and form….

Whenever I bring up artist’s statements, it seems to touch a nerve.  And rarely, if ever, have I gotten a comment in their defense (such as “I love artist’s statements!” “Once I read one, I can't wait to read more!”) yet they persist—like the weather, everyone talks about them but no one actually does anything.

There are several issues at play here. “Thi Bui” who doesn’t like “self-absorbed or insincere statements either” asks, however, “why don't we care about where the work comes from, or what the artist is trying to do?”

We don’t care because it has nothing to do with the experience of the work. Like music, the beauty of visual art—emphasis on the word visual—is its ability to communicate through non-verbal means, and is therefore more about sensation than thought. The delight is in its mystery, which by its nature defies explanation. If we want to communicate messages, writing is a better vehicle.

Also, any statement that tells us what a work is about or what the artist intends, limits the interpretation—in effect it pre-digests the experience so that it's hard to see it through any other lens. My favorite example is Doris Salcedo’s (2008) installation, 
the “crack” at the Tate Modern that I wrote about with relish in two blog posts. On its own, the piece was quite powerful; recalling fault lines or dry riverbeds, it threatened our sense of stability and security, brought to mind all manner of social and physical separations and divisions, the unknown beneath our feet, the feeling that nothing is permanent, nothing is forever, that there are forces bigger than ourselves….and I’m just getting started. But once you become aware that Salcedo sees her work as “addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world…” the whole thing goes flat, suddenly no more than a grandiose illustration of a lofty and banal idea.

Artists work from instinct, and may not be aware of the various possibilities of experience and interpretation that the work makes available. Interpretation is the work of philosophers and critics, and as an artist I’ve learned more about what my work “means” by reading about it than I did through the thoroughly intuitive process of making it.

The problem is that curators and critics are also relying on biography, intention, and social content to interpret art and justify it. When I wrote my article about Anne Truitt for Art in America, I devoted a portion of the article and several blog posts (see label for Anne Truitt) to the way the curator insisted on interpreting Truitt’s work through biography in the most elementary way—while acknowledging that “Truitt herself was reticent to make fully explicit the connections she nevertheless acknowledged between her life and art.” I came to the conclusion that the curator, who was a graduate of a curatorial program, simply did not know any other way to assess art.

However there is another way: observation
the act of looking at and experiencing the work and, as CAP points out, having confidence in our personal intuition.

What’s there is there, right in front of you, and what’s not there is….not.

Photo: Carol Diehl (2008)


Submitted by michelle muldrow (not verified) on
I read this and since I am in the middle of writing statements,I am completely confused on how to write mine.Some people say, "use your personal voice and experiences to explain your work", others say,"nothing says amateur more than personal experience explaining your art"..What do you think is the best way to handle this necessary but annoying requirement??

Great post. I always find it interesting when I read a statement, look at the work, realize that the artist has no idea what their work was about. As you suggest, when I write about art I use the intuition approach. I find that, when art is good, really looking at the work is very insightful, revealing a lot about the artist and the meaning of the work.

I am a fan of a well written paragraph or two that gives me some insight to what I'm seeing. I don't want it to explain every nuance, and I don't want to be told what to feel about it, but I do want to know what led the artist to create the particular body of work I see before me. In other words: give me some dots, and I'll connect them as I view the work.

Given the number of artists, with their proportionately greater number of images and exhibitions, blog and websites, I think we do need some key elements to help us get through the thicket: a few well-selected images and a cogent statement that will help a gallery write an informative press release.

And here's the corollary issue: the crappy press releases that come from many galleries.

Every artist I know dreads the artist statement, but so many venues require them. If I ever get enough clout to refuse to do them, I'll know I've arrived.

Joanne Mattera has a good point though, sometimes they seem necessary to counteract the press releases that galleries write. Since most media coverage, if you can get it, just reprints the press release, your audience will have a preconceived explanation of your work based how the gallery that "represents" you describes it. Ideally you have input on that, but not always.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
Though I haven't seen it in person, I had the same reaction to the Salcedo piece. Great, until I knew what it was about. Something you said: "delight in mystery" --I really like that expression. My experience is Europeans have more of an ability to do that than Americans, though I have no idea why, and I'm loathe to make those kinds of generalizations. So many collectors here absolutely need me to tell them how to look at a work, which defies the entire experience altogether.

As you mention, so much of what goes into appreciation of art is non-verbal.
Jung's ideas about universal iconography come into play and often we lose the personal relevancy in an effort to make art meaningful to everyone.

Is it? I think that like music, the strongest works are highly personal. Whether or not the current audience understands or appreciates art is not necessarily important to its longevity in the culture. Perhaps communication is over-rated.

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