Artist Statements, Program Notes, and Curtain Speeches

Not long ago, Bill Davenport posting on Glass Tire called the artist statement the “scourge of the contemporary art world” and encouraged other artists to not do them.  He also pointed to another posting by Daniel Grant on The Huffington Post which indicates that almost no one has any use for them.  Count me among them.

It’s true that some art can be complex and difficult to understand, but explaining in words what you were trying to do seems a really weak substitute for creating art that speaks for itself.  Not only are there innumerable ways that an artist statement can reflect poorly on the artist or artwork, but artists themselves, at least all the ones I know, hate them, and hate that many shows and galleries seem to demand them.  Artists would much rather let the work be judged on its own merits and not colored with verbal explanations or philosophy. My feeling is that if my own work really requires explanation, I have the wrong audience or I have done it badly.

Program notes serve much the same function and are just as bad.  They usually give the director’s take on the play or composition, or other performance piece. But I wonder at any art that by its very nature seeks public exhibition and yet requires explication.  If you can’t see it in the performance, what does it matter what the director thought about what he/she was trying to do or what he/she thinks this particular piece “means” or why he/she wanted to do the piece in the first place. The only legitimate function of program notes is to help pass the time while waiting for the show to begin.

Dramaturgical notes are marginally better. They, at least, provide some historical, sociological, or psychological background, usually based on real research.  Occasionally they are interesting. But again, if the piece needs explaining, why bother to show it to a public that you think will not understand it?

Curtain speeches are perhaps my least favorite type of extraneous verbiage in the art world.  They come in a large variety: some are simple begging speeches attempting to get you, the viewer, to give money or some other type of support, some attempt to flatter the audience, some are gratuitous discussions of the cast and/or producing organization or staff, some are program notes delivered orally.  In any case, they, like the other forms of art explanation, come between the viewer and the art. Just when you are getting ready to settle back and enjoy the performance, you have a director, or producer, or fund-raiser on stage in a follow-spot telling you why you should give, or subscribe, or underwrite, or understand, or some other-such thing in order to really show your appreciation for tonight’s performance. By the end of it, you are so put off that you have to do a full mental reset to put yourself back in performance-watching mode. Let the audience enjoy the show they came to see!

If it has to be explained, write an essay instead.  If you are making art, then make it, unapologetically and un-explicated.  If the world doesn’t get it, it doesn’t get it, no matter how many words you make up to go with it.

Art should be able to stand on its own. If it cannot, maybe it’s not good art.

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Date: Sunday, 10. October 2010 22:05
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Audience, Creativity

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2 comments

  1. 1

    Certainly art is essentially inexplicable. At the same time, I think art conveys something to the viewer or audience or reader, and that something is a kind of meaning, and all meanings depend on a context. The context of most artworks includes a lot of other artworks, which in turn have their inexplicable essences. But the contexts of art also include many things we could talk about, were we to deem it advisable.

    I think of the advisability of explication in terms of literary genre. And I think of literary genre as a set of shared expectations between writer and reader. A modern reader gathers from the title and first several pages what sort of book he’s got in his hands, and interprets everything else accordingly. A novelist can transgress expectations, but he can’t transgress non-expectashuns.

    It’s rare, and usually a bad idea, for a still-current novel to come out with a nonfiction introduction. Harper Lee has always refused: “Although Mockingbird will be 33 this year, it has never been out of print and I am still alive, although very quiet” (1993).

    Nevertheless, if you had approximately zero knowledge of 1930’s Alabama, it would be mighty difficult to appreciate Ms. Lee’s beautiful and brilliant storytelling. God willing we survive, some sort of introduction for To Kill a Mockingbird will someday be advisable, as it might be already for, say, a Russian translation.

    On the other hand, any introduction is an introduction by somebody, a somebody who decides what and how to introduce. Ideally, a reader of, say, Chaucer, learns quite a bit about 14th century England and 14th century letters, and does not rely solely, or at all, on the introduction to a particular modern edition. Especially the Norton.

    Allow me now to translate my remarks to the visual and performing arts, in which I have approximately zero expertise. I think you’re right, Light Guy, that artists’ statements are to be eschewed. The curtain speech is particularly undermining, not to mention gauche.

    Generally one knows what sort of play one has come to see, or what sort of art exhibit. One doesn’t go to these things if one knows nada about the medium and genre of the work. If one doesn’t know the particular artist, one still forms one’s receptive frame of mind according to titles, posters, location of the exhibition or performance, etc. An artist who wishes to be understood will take care, as a novelist does, to indicate his context through these usual signals, and possibly, as a novelist sometimes does, to play around with these signals as an extension of the artwork itself. All this is mutually understood and expected by artist and audience, ne c’est pas?

    Only in cases where the expected audience cannot be expected to grasp the context–the expectations to be shared–might explication be considered, with the same caveats that apply to introducing olde bookes.

  2. 2

    First, thank you for your comments. I have thought quite a bit about this one, particularly your suggestion that sometime in the future, an introduction for To Kill a Mockingbird might be advisable. I think I agree more with your counter-argument. The educated reader/viewer certainly does not rely on the non-fiction introduction to an art work.

    As you point out, the careful artist will indicate context. If he/she does not, then I wonder if the work has any real relevance to future generations except as historical curiosity, regardless of how brilliant it may appear to contemporaries. It seems to me that true “classic” art, and by that I mean art that continues to be viable through time and cultures, provides its own context, or manages to be universal, at least to the point of being applicable, at least in part, to multiple times and cultures.

    It occurs to me that I could go on and on about this topic, but I do have a tendency to go on and on. But this topic may deserve a post of its own. So I’ll stop for now and consider that.

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