The primary means of engaging with art is– and should be– experiencing it first hand.
Most of the artists I know tend to feel this way, and they squirm, procrastinate and fret when they’re asked to talk or write about their work. It’s actually quite rare for an artist to be as gifted verbally as they are visually, if only for the fairly obvious reason that their chosen means of expression is images, not words.
Look at it the other way around: novelists are rarely called upon to paint the covers of their own books. The fundamentally non-verbal nature of many art makers is one of the reasons that good writing about art can sometimes be so helpful; it can act as the little key to unlock the greatest treasures inside the art work it describes. That’s also why I find it so disappointing when so much writing about art wastes this opportunity by excluding and confusing rather than including and illuminating.
This project will go into specific examples later, but I’m sure many readers already have in mind certain art texts that may be made up of technically correct English words and sentences, but ultimately can’t be processed by the reader into anything resembling a rational argument. You may immediately recall particular writers about art who seem to be going for the high score in a game of Scrabble instead of communicating ideas.
Artists definitely aren’t blameless, either: pretentious, absurd and incoherent statements by artists about their own work are so notorious that they’re recognised as a joke even by people who rarely or never visit art galleries. Whether the “we” in question is artists, curators, academics, PR departments or any of the other people who have occasion to write about art, it’s hard to see how we really achieve any of our various aims by confusing people and making ourselves seem ridiculous or out of touch with reality.
Of course we shouldn’t baulk at choosing the right words to express our meaning, even if this involves specialised language that may require a little context and explanation to some people. We shouldn’t be scared of being seen to take art seriously. We shouldn’t fear or deride intelligence, articulacy or complexity.
I strongly believe that we should aspire to raising everybody’s level of knowledge. We shouldn’t assume that everybody’s an idiot and speak to them accordingly, because this drags us all down to the most tiresomely literal and unreflective ways of engaging with art.
I would say it comes down to the difference between being intelligent and merely trying to seem clever. Some writers about art are really just demonstrating their membership of an in-group and policing its boundaries by repeating the shibboleths, blurting the passwords like robots, waving the exclusionary jargon in everybody else’s bewildered faces. They’re desperate to seem clever. Sometimes it’s clearly deliberate and they don’t care if 99% of their readers are turned off, because their intended audience is purely and exclusively other people like themselves. This very much includes far too many artists when they’re talking about their own work.
Much more often– and in some ways more unfortunately– it’s unconscious or accidental. It’s the result of complacency or a lack of adequate time or thought, or it’s because they’re quite simply not as aware as they should be about the craft of writing. Unlike the arrogance of people who want to be seen as clever, all of these latter issues can be fixed. As with many of the problems in our lives, minor or otherwise, we can start to fix them only when we fully acknowledge their existence and take responsibility for them.
The crime writer Elmore Leonard advises writers to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. I think most of us know which parts he’s talking about, even if– perhaps especially if– we’re occasionally guilty of writing them. Remember that while “unputdownable” may be an ugly and quasi-grammatical coinage, it’s also one of highest compliments a reader can pay to a text. I see absolutely no reason why writing about art and artists shouldn’t be unputdownable as well.
Alistair Gentry is collaborating with Dany Louise on the workshop strand of Interpretation Matters. He works nationally and internationally in video, animation, installation, drawing, photography, performance, text and programming. He has authored two published novels, as well as the brilliant ‘Career Suicide: Ten Years as a Free Range Artist‘, a first hand non-fictional account of the art world’s flaws and failures.
He is part of the ACE funded www.marketproject.org.uk a collaborative initiative by eight artists based in the East of England.