Visual art, we are told, should speak for itself. I have been thinking about a post on Facebook by Jerry Saltz, well-known art critic and writer, in which he complains about the tendency to over-explain modern art. I posted in a previous blog post that in my opinion the only visual art that needs explanation is mediocre art; good art and bad art need no context. Perhaps that’s a little harsh, but it was my response to seeing a slew of modern ‘museum’ art installations about five or six years ago in which the ‘exploration’ and ‘investigation’ had become more important than the art created. The art became just the afterthought, or consequence of the investigation. Without the explanatory essays, the art made no sense on a rational, intellectual level, and as the art had become subsumed within the machine, it also had become unsuccessful on an emotional or imaginative level.
Fundamentally, it is a truism to state that visual art needs no context, or explanation ~ the piece needs to be eloquent enough to speak for itself by definition of being ‘art’. As an observer, when we appreciate a work of art we create it anew in our relationship with it, and the steps, stages and real-life narrative that brought it into being becomes irrelevant. I am in no way arguing that all art must be understood by all in order to be art. Sometimes, the right person isn’t listening, it’s the wrong set of circumstances, or the artwork just too challenging or complex. Art can also have different audiences in mind, like any highly refined activity. Art may not speak to everyone; it may be referring to itself, and its predecessors, as does almost all of the art in museums.
Consider my photograph above. Toilet rolls really do have an awful lot of meaning if you think about it. They in themselves are seductively simple forms of line, volume, light and shade, and they exist in almost everyone’s lives, repeated in their billions over and over. We interact, we touch it, we wipe with it. It marks the possibility of intense urbanisation and the development of an ‘art culture’ ~ think about it: without toilets, could we all live so closely together, on such a small amount of land? But the ‘art’ remains a photograph of empty toilet rolls.
So here’s my question. Does the text I have written above bring more meaning to the art photograph I posted at the top?
If there was no explanation at all (and for all we know no intention at all behind it) does it fall from being considered ‘art’?
If we think it might be ‘art’, then are all of the associations and thought I listed above evident when we look at just the artwork. If it is art, is the work better when it is unsaid?
At any rate, to really look at it and let all such thoughts emerge and consider them takes time. And let’s face facts here: when were we last able to view art and spend any time over viewing it? What institutions that show art have enough welcoming benches for us to sit and while away even 10 minutes, let alone an hour. We are expected to gaze and walk by, let’s admit it, with the obvious exception of video or other four-dimensional artworks. To meet a stranger and get to know them takes time. You can judge their clothes, and know where they shop, but fundamentally this is just a tiny part of what they are, but it is all you see at first glance. The same is true with art. To understand art takes time, not an awkward walk-by while being stared at by over-vigilant security staff in an echoing hall.
This is where the information sheet comes in. The information sheet (not wall tags please, wall tags next to artworks deny us a full experience of the artwork first and foremost) can enable us, in our rushed world, to get a quick up-to-speed summary of where the artist is coming from, what continuum the artworks exist within. They can function as an educator and interpretor for the hurried rush of viewers, each of whom will have a variety of backgrounds, education, and tastes. Words can be so every precise and exact, dictionary-definable, leaving little ambiguity, whereas art is always full of ambiguities. They can be read in a limited time.
The symbols of art communicate at a deeper level than words, a more ancient level, a more ambiguous one; just as before accurate clocks there were no minutes to worry over, just stretches of sunshine and darkness, before our complicated, dictionary-defined language there was just communication.
In my life as an artist, my enduring use of the motif of trees and light is rooted in emotional and physical truths that are core to my being and understanding of the universe, and as I create more of them I am finding more and more pathways in the forest, and I am meeting people there, too. Although I have reached most of the milestones I set myself so far, I know my journey in art is just beginning, as I find myself wanting to shout out “wait, wait! There’s more!”. This ‘more’ is a lifetime, and beyond, as my lifetime stretches back as far as the earliest stories told by the oldest people I knew when I was growing up, and through communication in print and pictures my lifetime can encompass the life of the universe.
The experience of an artwork is much briefer than the intention, inspiration and creation of it.
For this reason, an object or experience that is art should be able to exist and express solely on its own – this is its job – and my personal focus this year will be on trying to refine how I can do this more