Thursday, April 4, 2013

Of objects, juxtaposition and making a mark

When I began this blog I resolved to stay away from controversial issues. But it's not in my nature to bite my lip. The dam might finally have busted.

Consider this a follow-up to my article on controversy in art. It is, in that regard, my second contribution to the controversy which was invited at the City of Albany's Great Southern Art Award.

I've never been much of a fan of the pompous, pseudo-intellectual gobbledegook known as "art speak", or what has now apparently been re-branded as "International Art English", a label which itself reads like nonsense.

As a pursuit with a long history and many different approaches, media and techniques, there's no doubt that art needs its own subset of the language. Genre labels such as impressionism and expressionism make sense in conversations about the art world. Terms like intaglio, chiaroscuro and plein air, while possibly sounding elitist to "outsiders", are a useful shorthand in communication between artists.

But art speak is something different. It doesn't appear to be about communication so much as obfuscation. At its worst, art speak comes across as decidedly elitist – almost as if the very point of using it is to elevate the perpetrator above the supposedly ignorant masses. The in-crowd and wannabes nod knowingly as the art critic waxes lyrical about a blank canvas, while the masses wonder if the artist will ever get around to starting the piece.

What is art speak?

I used to joke that you weren't a real art judge or art critic if you couldn't work the word juxtaposition into your commentary on some work. Juxtaposing is nothing special, it just means to set things side-by-side. Good artists use careful juxtaposition to their advantage all the time, but while it's a legitimate tool in the artist's arsenal, outside of a certain corner of the art world who really uses it in public commentary?

Before I delve into examples of art speak, there are two particularly annoying snippets of it that drive me bananas.

The first is the apparent dismissal of artworks, even great works, as mere "objects". You might hear a critic refer to a particular painting as "a wonderful object", but is it really flattery? An object is essentially something that exists, something that has form, something tangible. So damned-near everything is an object in one sense or another. How is it remotely useful to describe an exhibition of beautiful paintings or sculptures as a collection of objects? It is pointlessly obtuse and no more instructive than calling them "things" or "stuff".

Next cab off the rank is the redefinition of painting to be simply "mark making". What is that even supposed to mean? Am I supposed to feel better knowing that when I'm tearing my hair out trying to get a painting to work that I am only making marks? Frankly, I'm insulted by it.

How does "mark making" differentiate art from any of the other myriad reasons why things, or objects, are painted, stained, coloured or otherwise defaced? Is a fingerprint taken by the police a piece of art? Is the original print the police discovered on a broken safe also art? What about the red wine stain on the carpet from the last office party – is that art too? From my perspective, painting is no more about mere mark making than music is about "sound making" or race-car driving is about "moving around". Not all movement is racing, not all sound is music and not all marks are art. The mark-making label is meaningless. It's gibberish.

In my opinion, the terms, "object" and "mark-making", diminish the efforts of artists and appear to be used so as to open the art world up to people who otherwise demonstrate very little artistic skill or expertise. As a result, Rothko's blurry brown rectangles are heralded as great art alongside, or more likely above, skillful, beautifully lit portraits by Rembrandt – they are, after all, both objective examples of marks that were made.

And that brings me to the most pervasively annoying forms of art speak - the artist statement and the art critique.

James Gurney showed us a very simple Artist Statement Generator in 2009. Used correctly, it will give you gems like:

"My recent work is an exploration of the irreducible act of mark-making which delves into the connectedness of the real and the abstract by mediating clich├ęs through a retro-nostalgic lens."

Simply beautiful, and so descriptive - oh, and "mark making!" Despite housing just 64 possible combinations of output, that boilerplate statement table really knows its stuff.

And of course, where there's an Artist Statement Generator there must surely be an Art Critique Phrase Generator. This handy little web-based tool will have you bamboozling the suburban class quicker than you can say...

"With regard to the issue of content, the disjunctive perturbation of the purity of line makes resonant the distinctive formal juxtapositions."

There you have it - "juxtaposition". It must be good.

With just 50 critique fragments to chose from (offering 100,000 possible combinations), this automated process delivers statements that are indistinguishable from the real thing. And because art speak critiques are so often entirely meaningless, the results of either the robot or the human art critic can be applied to almost any artwork, without even seeing it.

One of the favourite tools of the art speaker is self contradiction. They will begin their statement with one observation about an appreciated artwork, then suggest that this first observation demonstrates a contradictory idea. For example, an elite art critic might look at a splodge of paint on a torn piece of carpet and explain that "its apparent simplicity perfectly illustrates the complexity of the urban experience". It's simple, but it isn't really and its simplicity exposes its complexity. Or something.

I think we're supposed to be impressed by the idea that the critic is able to recognise the complex ideas embedded in what the rest of us might just see as a splodge of paint on a torn piece of carpet. In reality, such nonsensical remarks are like Forer statements in as much as they appear to say something specific while saying nothing useful. A similar technique is adopted in the writing of horoscopes.

To illustrate my point still further, here are a few snippets from the judges' comments at the "controversial" Great Southern Art Award. Remember, these are real comments, read out and posted at a community award, and not made up by me, and not the results of a java-scripted joke website.

Please note that I am not passing judgement on the artworks themselves, many of which I admire for various reasons, and I imagine some of the award recipients were as bemused by the art speak as I was. 
  • We enjoyed the use of hand written notes suggesting thoughts that give a strong sense of spontaneity.
  • It has a sketchbook-like quality but with the depth and surface quality of a resolved work.
  • This work speaks of process and the meticulous labour that has made it successful.
  • An intriguing observation of a luscious surface, captured perfectly the layering of paint to evoke a painterly effect. 
  • This work has simple abstract forms that suggest complex seascapes and landscapes, hidden in what appears to be an uncomplicated process.
  • Hidden within layers, other worlds reveal themselves and surprise the viewer. 
  • The successful depiction of these observations is revealed upon closer inspection and the more time spent with these works makes for a more rewarding experience. 
  • We enjoy the hands-on approach to pushing the material into another form.
  • Leaving the work unframed makes the work more accessible.  
  • This work is brave in its simplicity.  
  • Removing the reflection of one’s self speaks volumes.
I think my favourites are those that exemplify the self-contradiction rule in art speak – "a sketchbook-like quality but with the depth and surface quality of a resolved work" and "simple abstract forms that suggest complex seascapes...hidden in...an uncomplicated process. ". But making an artwork more accessible by not framing it is pretty good too. I try to make my paintings "accessible" by hanging them where people can see them.

Now, it could be argued that I have cherry-picked these and published them out of context, and it's a charge I'll wear. But I was there when the full statements were read out and, even in context and without cherry picking, they were still art speak and still largely meaningless.

Several of the statements, like "the hands-on approach", are so generic they make no real sense even when you stand before the works they're apparently describing. Apart, perhaps, from entries in the photography section, I'm pretty sure hands were well and truly involved in making of almost all the artworks on display in that exhibition.

Next time you read an art critique or judge's comments, see if you can really understand what they're saying or if their comments are like Jabberwocky, and you just feel like you know what they mean.

2 comments:

  1. You are a brave soul to address these issues. I agree with you. I used to have architecture students in my glassblowing classes and they could spin some dense commentary on their work which was filled with buzz words,and what seemed to me unrelated or overblown concepts. Students not privy to architecture-speak were sometimes intimidated and overly impressed because they assumed they were not up to understanding. Only the confident and brave can afford to speak and write clearly!

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  2. Thanks Anon. It might not be bravery so much as foolhardiness. Time will tell.

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