Post from April, 2018

“That Works” Is Insufficient

Monday, 23. April 2018 0:34

Years ago, if memory serves, Jack Lemmon on Inside the Actors Studio expressed an intense dislike for the phrase, “that works.” He did not explain. At the time, I thought it was a curious comment since it’s a phrase that is heard constantly in artistic endeavors. It is applied to not only acting, but also to painting, composition, sculpture, directing, photography, and many other art genres. What could be wrong with that phrase? It indicates when things “click,” when they mesh, when parts come together and make a whole. Generally, the phrase is used to indicate acceptability or success.

In the last post I discussed John Chamberlain’s 1982 artist statement, wherein he says that his artistic decision-making has to do with “primarily sexual and intuitive thinking.”  Chamberlain initially seems to equate intuitive thinking or intuition with editing ability: “I’ve done pieces, for example, on which were piled as many as 40 to 50 parts, but none was totally interlocked, or welded. That is the sexual fit. Intuition, however, may have made me remove some, or many, of the parts.”

But for Chamberlain intuition is more than just editing; he goes on to say, “Intuition will indicate when something is not acceptable, even though it might work. That it works is not necessarily enough. It can be acceptable, but something more is needed. The fine line is that it is either junk, or art materials, or, it is a piece of work. “

So for Chamberlain, and I expect for Lemmon, “that works” is insufficient. It is that something beyond acceptability which makes a piece into a work of art instead of being just materials, or in some cases junk. The problem is that we have no name for that something. It is certainly not perfection. Hardly anyone who is a serious artist expects perfection. If not perfection, then what?

How about excellence? “That works” does imply success or acceptability. However, excellence goes beyond mere success or acceptability. Excellence means “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good.” So Chamberlain, and one assumes Lemmon, expected to produce work that was not acceptable, but work that was excellent. That’s a pretty high bar.

And it’s a bar that is being met only part of the time by a portion of artists. If you attend any art show or theatre performance you may see work that is excellent, but you are very likely to see work that is just acceptable. The reasons, I think, are many: a de-emphasis on excellence in artist training, the pressure to put work out in order to be seen and known, the emphasis on showing rather than on working. Chamberlain resisted the impulse to produce work quickly, or at least so he says: “If I were zippy and worked hard all the time, what I’d create would be of little value; I’d make too many mistakes.”

Perhaps we should adopt Chamberlain’s attitude and resist the impulse to “get the work out.” If producing is our goal, we are more likely to create work that is merely acceptable, about which we can say only “that works.” Perhaps instead we should take a little more time and a little more care and refuse to settle for work that is less than excellent.

Category:Creativity, Productivity | Comment (0) | Author:

Words Matter

Sunday, 8. April 2018 23:53

Art agents, marketers and galleryists, both physical and digital, are quick to tell artists that the story behind the picture will help the sale. The story, they say, engages the viewer in a way that just studying the piece cannot. Artists, therefore, should be ready and willing to tell the story behind each image. In fact, Austin Kleon had a recent blog giving writing advice for artists and visual thinkers. Obviously, these art world figures think that words matter.

Because of my theatre background, I have always taken issue with this approach, and have been very vocal about my feelings concerning curtain speeches and program notes. Naturally, I extended this thinking to the story behind the picture. My opinion was that— just like theatre—an image should speak for itself. I may have been a bit hasty.

Since last weekend was a long weekend, I spent some time in Marfa, TX (which I recommend to nearly everyone). One of my favorite things in Marfa is the Chamberlain exhibit in downtown Marfa right beside the railroad tracks. (For anyone interested, the hours/days of opening are quirky and subject to change without notice—in fact, they’ve changed in the week since I was there.) Having seen the exhibit before, I was not surprised by anything except the laminated artist statement that was available for pickup near the entrance.

In his artist statement, written in 1982, John Chamberlain says that his artistic decision-making has to do with “primarily sexual and intuitive thinking.” There were other things in the artist statement that were of value (and may appear here at a later time), but the comments about making decisions based on the sexual aspects of his psyche caught my eye. Two caveats, however, must be put forward: 1. this statement may not mean that sex is the topic of the sculpture but only that the pieces that he puts together to create his sculptures have a “sexual fit.” 2. Chamberlain was possessed of a wicked sense of humor, so he may have put sexual references into his artist statement just for fun.

So it’s difficult to tell whether or not he was being serious. No matter; the important part is how much those words mattered, even when they were somewhat suspect. I found the artist statement after I had made my first round of the exhibit. I read the statement and then went through the exhibit again. The pieces had changed! Or rather my perception of them had. The words had made a difference in how I was looking at the pieces and what the pieces seemed to be saying.  And it was not just the sexual references in the artist statement, but the whole of it. What was essentially a statement of Chamberlain’s approach to making art, somewhat ambiguously expressed, had altered my understanding of the pieces.

Still, I cannot fully recant my position. My position on curtain speeches and program notes has not changed. This is probably because a play by its nature speaks for itself, and if the director feels s/he has to explain the play, it probably has not been done well. And I still hold that visual art, whether it be two- or three-dimensional, should speak for itself. Like performances, if it must be explained, it’s probably not successful. However, if there are notes about artist’s procedures or ideas that are available, and those notes are absorbed by the viewer and then applied to the viewing of the art, they may well modify the viewer’s appreciation and more fully engage the viewer (regardless of the art genre). Whether this is good or bad, I cannot say; what I can say is that it’s true. Words matter.

Category:Audience, Presentation | Comment (0) | Author:

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