Post from 842, April 2018

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.

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