Thursday, January 24, 2008

Great art often comes from an artist thinking – and wanting to solve something – beyond their subjective selfhood

Roberta Smith wrote a lively piece in the Sunday Times last week titled ‘What we talk about when we talk about Art’ (link here). She weighed in on the use of commonly used clichés used by the artworld that inherently reflects and harbors intellectual insecurities. As an example, she talks about the oft over-used ‘Referencing‘ (as in the statement “this work referencing male chauvinism uses…”), ‘Privilege’ (as in “privileging the leftist agenda”) and ‘Practice’ (as in “my studio practice”). I have seen these used and sometimes abused in many artist biographies, statements and exhibition descriptions. While Referencing really means ‘referring to’ and Privilege means ‘favoring’, it is the term Practice that has the biggest potential for being misconstrued…
She makes three assertions:
#1. First off, there’s the implication that artists, like lawyers, doctors and dentists, need a license to practice. Many artists already feel the need for a license: It’s called a master of fine arts. But artists don’t need licenses or certificates or permission to do their work. Their job description, if they have one, is to operate outside accepted limits.
#2. Second is the implication that an artist, like a doctor, lawyer or dentist, is trained to fix some external problem. Art rarely succeeds when it sets out to fix anything beyond the artist’s own, subjective needs.
#3. Practice sanitizes a very messy process. It suggests that art making is a kind of white-collar activity whose practitioners don’t get their hands dirty, either physically or emotionally. It converts art into a hygienic desk job and signals a basic discomfort with the physical mess as well as the unknowable, irrational side of art making. It suggests that materials are not the point of art at all — when they are, on some level, the only point.
While I completely agree with #1 (that a formal degree while definitely useful is not essential to the development of an art mindset in an individual) and #3 (the subversion of materials around an artist constitutes an important part of artistic expression), I do have questions about #2 (the assertion that artists have a self-help, therapy based relationship with their art and it serves to solve personal, subjective problems rather than focus on larger global issues)…
I would say that in a large number of cases, the output produced by an artist may be directed to induce the viewer to think about (and in the ideal case, acting to alleviate) a problem hitherto unknown or underrepresented (sewer cleaners in India or a film about plantation workers in Dominica are two cases that come to mind). I might also add that artistic expressions such as the above stems from strong sincerity that the artist must have for the problem rather than being an accidental by-product while the artist indulged in self therapy…
Feedback appreciated. 5 Comments
Comment by Steve DurbinDecember 28, 2007 2:26 am
Thanks for calling this one to our attention; it’s quite apropos for a site that’s so full (too full?) of talk about art.
As a language fan, I don’t believe in synonyms, though I certainly see plenty of poor word choice. “Referencing” may have roughly the same denotation as “referring to,” but it is used in quite different contexts and suggests a whole postmodern theoretical framework. It’s a much better word (because it conveys so much more) IF one wants all that, and IF one has understood correctly the audience’s reaction. If used only to impress, without awareness of how pretentious it sounds to most, it will probably have the opposite effect.
Smith seems most bothered by “practice.” I never took this in the sense of a professional practice, but rather as meaning one’s habitual way of working, which I think most artists have, despite the unpredictabilities of it. Perhaps the New York usage is different. If I trust her ear on this, then I conclude there are different language communities even within the art world. Not necessarily a bad thing if we just remember it.
Comment by BirgitDecember 28, 2007 8:16 am
Ms. Smith’s verbal perception is only ‘So so!
ALLEN VEANER’s letter to the NYTimes editor
Ms. Smith, referring to a work by the German painter Martin Kippenberger, writes that it is ‘’labeled with ‘preis,’ the German word for price.'’ While it is true that preis means price, the word has many meanings, one of which is prize or award. I suspect that the title ‘’2. Preis.'’ is an expression of irony referring to ‘’second prize.'’
Allen Veaner is correct!
Comment by McFawnDecember 29, 2007 8:39 pm
Good response. I started to write a longer reply here but it became so long & ramble-y that I posted it at my site, with the appropriate citing/shout out to your post.
I thought it was strange that Smith was so bothered by the word practice…and I thought you made a good point about how great art often comes from an artist thinking–and wanting to solve something–beyond their subjective selfhood.
Comment by JuneDecember 30, 2007 11:57 am
Hi Sunil and all,
I am only bothered by the use of “practice” when it is clearly referencing the licensed utilization of artistic skills priveliging those with academic credentials.[add snort here]
And I am thoroughly frustrated by “referencing” since I don’t think the referral to deconstruction and high-tone theories is meaningful, except to those who have already imbibed the dregs of the vinegarish wine of Derrida (sorry, Steve). It’s very like the business use of “utilization” where it has become the word of obfuscating choice (see above”) We may be stuck with it, but I don’t have to like it.
“Privileging” I think is better — it has a very specific kind of connotation and is shorthand for what would be a mouthful to explain. I think it is useful even if it does reference an academic sort of techno-speak.
But back to the main question that Sunil broaches: what is the aim of art? I have to bow to McFawn’s emendation of Smith’s concepts:
“Good art slows the world down and shows us the dimensionality in even the most transient of experiences. Art is perpendicular to life: if a lifetime is a horizontal and forward-moving, art is vertical–showing us the heights and depths in moments from which we are compelled to move on. Art may not fix the problems of the world, but it shows us the fullness of what’s at stake.”
I like McFawn’s concept because it sidesteps questions of self-examination or political statement, both of which can exist in given works of art but are essentially beside the point. I don’t think Sunil’s portraits will change anybody’s mind or actions vis-a-vis tragic lives. But they do arrest us, stop us in our tracks and make us consider — consider what? well,possibly his technical prowess, or the plight of the human condition, or the nature of “progress,” or the irony of digitized portraiture in a hungry world, or the disgusting state of our own braggadocio or whether we can send more money to the local food bank.
The stopped state that art provokes can go in many directions — the important thing is that we get stopped.
And this may be why we all resent the 15 seconds or so of viewing that most art gets from viewers. But that’s a different subject altogether.
Comment by Martha — January 3, 2008 2:30 pm
I think the word “practice” has also come to have the positive implication borrowed from meditation, zen or otherwise. In the literature about that, one’s meditation work is often called one’s practice.
R.S. is privileging a tempest in a teapot, as far as I can see.
But isn’t it also funny how, if you read an artist statement before seeing the work, 99% of the time the words would not anticipate what the visual reality is…

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