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)