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 Â 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 Â 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 becomesÂ 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. Â 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 Â 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 Â 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, Â 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.Â Words can be so every precise and exact, dictionary-definable, leaving littleÂ ambiguity, whereas art is always full ofÂ 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.Â 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 solelyÂ on its own – this is its job – Â and my personal focus this year will be on trying to refine how I can do this more
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Ali, I love this well-written essay, but I have to confess that I am the person who always takes the guided tour and looks at the paintings with an audio guide sounding in my ears (in the absence of a human guide). I love hearing explanations of the paintings, having things pointed out to me, etc. And when this isn’t available, I tend to feel bored very quickly indeed and it’s a deep, visceral boredom that only increases the more I attempt to just sit and look. I know I am not a good ‘looker’ and am probably not the kind of person at whom visual art is aimed. But, since I am a lover of words, of the rational, of explanations and indications, why shouldn’t I use that as a bridge to help me appreciate the art? Since, as a result of the guided tours, etc. I have got a great deal out of many museum visits and am now haunted by certain works of art. In Buenos Aires, where I live, guided tours and audio tours are largely unknown (though I have been on wonderful tours of MALBA and the Museo de Artes Decorativos. Art is left to speak for itself. And, as a result, I don’t go to art galleries here and it’s not part of my life.
I can understand where some of your feelings are coming from, since I am a fellow artist (in the wider sense of the ‘art’ which encompasses more than just drawing and painting). When I think about someone narrating or explaining a dance performance in real time, my instinctive reaction is to think “Oh God, no, you should enjoy the dancing on its own, without needing words”. But, on second thoughts, I think, why not? Why not use one medium of communication as a bridge to help us understand another. I’m sure there are things that cannot be expressed in words. Otherwise, we could just use words and wouldn’t feel the need to create visual art or dance, etc. But why must the work always and exclusively speak for itself? And why should we consider people unworthy of the experience if they cannot access it without the help of language? The verbal explanation can help to begin a process of musing, to help me to get more out of the artwork and respond to it beyond the terms of the explanation itself. And, otherwise, I would just walk on by.
Hi Iona, thanks for your reply. I think we are quite similar – I love to know more too. In fact, I have a general thirst for knowledge and understanding, and I really appreciate how hard artists, educators, scientists, historians, writers and others work to share what they discover. I do want those words to be accesible, but first I want to experience the artworks on their own. And I agree that they help us digest more about the art, and enrich our appreciation of it more quickly, which is appropriate for large mixed audience-spaces such as art museums.
Thinking more about this, I can see how it is good to look at the art work first and get some gut reactions to it, before listening to or reading explanations. I’m going to make sure I do that in future: take a moment, before I switch on the audio guide.
Always worth discussing…and since art is so many different things to different people, there can’t be one answer. Some of us like the “full, audio tour” version, some can look at the photo and just enjoy the lines and shadows. And all are “right.” Art allows us to exercise our minds according to the “workout” we need. We can see so many variations. Even those who might gruff “they’re just garbage” have gotten what they need. Maybe the best art just allows us to see as many different possibilities as there are people to view it.