Artist, hush

If you’re around me for any length of time, sooner or later you’ll hear me declare that artists should never talk about their work. This may seem a little ironic in an art world where artists are expected to produce an artist’s statement before they are even considered for a gallery show, when artist’s talks are the best way to draw an audience to a show, when visiting artist lectures are a mainstay of the fine arts curriculum, and where much of the appeal of the art world is the chance to meet and talk with artists about their work. But it’s true.

All of which does a great disservice to the art audience, the artists, and to art itself. 

Here’s the thing: we are human beings. And it’s one of the oddities of being human — perhaps one of the defining characteristics — that instead of communicating clearly and simply, we couch almost all our communications in systems of symbols that carry a surplus of meaning.

Animals don’t do this; animals send signals, whether auditory or chemical or visual or kinetic, that have a fixed meaning. “Danger approaches.” “Let’s do it.” “This is my territory and I’d prefer if you’d leave now.”

Humans rarely do that. Instead of “I am currently open to mating” we say “And though I’m not a great romancer I know that I’m bound to answer when you propose: anything goes.” Instead of “I find her physically appealing” we say “She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies.” And instead of saying “War really sucks and the human cost is too terrible” we paint a tangle of bodies and a horse screaming and a bull looking on and a disembodied arm holding a hurricane lamp.

Picasso's Guernica

As anthropologist Clifford Geertz put it, none too straightforwardly himself, “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun”. (This was in 1973, the year before women were discovered, or I suspect he might have included women in that statement as well.)

The thing about those “webs of significance” is that they’re intricate, sticky, complex, and impossible to apprehend in their entirety — especially for those of us stuck in them. That’s what I mean by a “surplus of meaning”: there’s always more to be gleaned from even the simplest of human utterances. Try having an argument with your significant other and you’ll understand exactly what I mean.

Meaning, as it happens, isn’t something we communicate, it’s something we evoke. That is, we communicate in order to cause another person or persons to create the meaning that we intend for themselves. Perhaps because I can’t trust other people to behave instinctually the way I’m trying to get them to behave, I have to get them to arrive at the meaning I’m trying to convey through internal processes of their own. Sometimes this is simple: I say “Hold this” and you hold it. We whittle down that surplus of meaning pretty fast. Sometimes, not so much: I say “Trust me” and… well, a thousand things can happen. (There’s an old joke that says “trust me” is Yiddish for “fuck you”.)

So here’s the artist, trying to evoke some response in their viewer. Their chosen medium is even less precise than spoken language: paint or marble or found objects or dialogue or words in rhythm and rhyme or dance or narrative or… And often the meaning they hope to convey is vague as well.

As soon as their “utterance” — their completed work — is made, they become viewers. If you don’t believe me, go dig out a story or painting or book report or any marginally creative expression you created 10 years ago and see how much of yourself you recognize in it.

So if the artist becomes a viewer, and certainly viewers are allowed to talk about a work of art, then why shouldn’t artists talk about their art? The problem is, artists are up to their eyeballs in the artist’s intentions. They can’t not interpret work other than with reference to the artist’s intentions. And the artist’s intention is a terrible standard of interpretation — especially when you’re the artist!

An artist knows, deep-down, what he or she wants to say, what he or she meant to say, what he or she assumes they said. The problem is, that’s not what the artist said. It may be a part of what they said, but then again, it may not. Maybe the artist didn’t pull it off. Maybe on some level they sabotaged themselves. Maybe they don’t have the skill, or the clarity of thought, or even jsut the nerves to say what they want to say.

Photo portrait of Vaudeville star Bert William...

Image via Wikipedia

Let me give you an example: There used to be blackface performers. Mostly Irish and then mostly Jewish, these stage performers would darken their hands and faces with burnt cork in a horrific exaggeration of already horrific black stereotypes, and sing, dance, and jape in a horrific exaggeration of African-American performance. It was awful — racist to the core, perpetuating the worst sort of stereotypes, and likely offering sanction to generations of lynch mobs.

Except… If you asked one of these performers, he or she would tell you of their deep respect for “negro” performance and culture. Especially the Jewish immigrants who donned blackface, who often identified profoundly with the oppressed African-American population, having faced random violence and government-sanctioned brutality themselves back in the Old World. And I haven’t even mentioned one of the most famous blackface performers, at one time one of the most highly-paid performers in the world, Bert Williams, who was himself black!

And yet the meaning of blackface is clearly not what any of these artists intended. In fact, it’s the opposite of what many intended.

So it goes with artists as a whole. Not only do they not have any privileged knowledge about what a work means, but in fact they often have entirely the wrong idea about their work. But hey, it’s ok to be wrong, right?

For you and me, sure, it’s ok to be wrong. It’s never happened to me personally, of course, but if it did, I’m sure it would be fine. But for the artist, it’s not quite so ok. Because unfortunately, the artist speaks with authority — heck, that’s what the word “authority” means. And so the artist not only expresses a necessarily limited and often inverted idea of what he or she thinks his or her work means, but they do so with all the social weight of the expert — artificially twisting and confining the way the rest of us view their work.

So who does that help? It doesn’t help the viewer, who naturally expects the work of art to evoke meaning, not limit it. It doesn’t help the artist, who presumably makes art, with all its ambiguity, ambivalence, and ambulatory meaning, with some recognition of the over-loading of meaning onto their canvas, potter’s wheel, keyboard, or whatever other medium they use.

It doesn’t help dealers and gallerists, the people who most insist artists talk about their work, since by limiting the range of a work’s meaning they necessarily limit its audience and thus its potential for sale. It doesn’t help critics and academic, who already recognize that artists aren’t reliable witnesses to their own act of creation.

In short, it doesn’t help anyone when artists talk about their work. Its interesting when they talk about their processes, about their inspirations, about the world they create in — and relatively undangerous. But let’s stop demanding that artists talk about their work all the time, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll all be richer for it.

2 comments to Artist, hush

  • m.a. witman

    “If you’re around me for any length of time, sooner or later you’ll hear me declare that artists should never talk about their work.”
    Eliot, Baudelaire, Delacroix, Vasari, da Vinci.

    Perhaps artists should stop aping critics and “theoreticians” who put ideology before practice.
    Theory is ideology by definition. “Commentary” is a form of engagement.

    “James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and an escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence. He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it…. In England, ideas run wild and pasture on the emotions; instead of thinking with
    our feelings (a very different thing) we corrupt our feelings with ideas; we produce the public, the political, the emotional idea, evading sensation and thought…. Mr. Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks. James in his novels is like the best French critics in maintaining a point of view, a view-point untouched by the parasite idea. He is the most intelligent man of his generation.”

    Your writing is mannered and annoying. You speak as if from a distance but the distance is illusory. Eliot does it better. Compared to him you’re a moralizing pedant.

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