A dear mate has just sent me this excellent diatribe against art b*ll*cks from Culture Northern Ireland and it got me thinking: why is there so much rubbish written about art? This comes 12 years after Brian Ashbee let rip on the subject in Art Review. So the problem hasn’t got any better.
I make it a point of principle never to read any interpretive text before I look at an exhibition/film/performance. Either it says something to me or it doesn’t and the supporting information is often neither here nor there if the experience has been an empty one. As often as not, what I take from what I see may be miles away from the description/encryption of it.
How often do you read a press art critique and come away from it with no sense of how the writer feels about what they’re describing? Or read, with dismay, that what you’ve just seen isn’t at all what you thought/felt it was? It seems ironic that a medium that can bypass language is so often nailed to the mast of a semantic ship, sailing into the opaque waters of the writer’s need to pin down the indefinable, to show off their knowledge, or to fudge our understanding of what is good or not.
Over the (many, many) years that I’ve been navigating these same waters (note the sustained metaphor – it can’t last) I’ve seen some things that have changed the way I look at certain things forever and I’ve seen a lot of stuff that is so pointless that it has to be swaddled in contextual discourse. Quite frankly, if art needs explaining in long, complicated words then it isn’t doing its job.
This over-explaining isn’t confined to galleries or art critics but spills over into all sorts of other areas too. Art seems to need to be justified, qualified, explained before it can be taken seriously. Social deprivation? Art will help. Global warming? Hooray the artists will make it all ok again. Feeling poorly? Stick an art plaster on it. That’s not to say that art can’t have something to say about these topics, but please let’s not over-egg the pudding.
Art has never sorted out my overdraft, made me feel less ill or found me a job, but it’s certainly influenced my world view on big issues and even little ones (I now see constellations in the discarded chewing gum outside stations thanks to Rut Blees Luxemburg). Art has made me laugh and cry and think and sometimes it makes me think about topics that I know can’t possibly have been in the mind of the artist who made the work. It doesn’t matter. When I don’t feel anything at all and have to grope for the piece of paper with the explanation on, then I know I’m in trouble.
And if the piece of paper cites all the artists through history who may (or may not) have influenced the work on show, then I get twitchy. Sure, artists look at other artists’ work, but that’s not all that influences them. Art that lasts in the mind of the beholder is multi-layered and multi-influenced, constructed from a brain soup of ideas, observations, understandings and even prejudices.
Just as I was about to publish this I spotted that Axis have felt similarly moved by this parlous state of affairs and commissioned David Berridge to rant about art criticism. Ashbee’s critique crops up again in the comments, as do many more.
So what are we going to do about it?
Please send me your favourite examples and any translations into plain English, if you can manage it.
*Image descriptor: “Geliot’s use of the signs and signifiers of discarded packaging to point to the higher aspirations of urban regeneration hovers between the sublime and absurd”. (note to sub-editor – please do not punctuate)