Enough With the Words!

This short piece by Jonathan Jones (in The Guardian) captures rather succinctly many of the frustrations I have written about here in earlier posts. We are currently living through a period of inappropriate dependence on language to extol and explain what is often beyond language in the visual arts. Enough words! My voice joins others in a plea for inviting a variety of different responses including silence, stillness, and to be outside of thinking and logic.

The anecdote about Jackson Pollock is particularly heartwarming…

It is a vice of second-rate art to come with its own eloquent explanation attached. If an artist can translate the meaning and purpose of a work into easily understandable words, it means one of two things. Either the artist is lying, in order to ease the way with patrons and funders; or the artist is a fool. And if dishonesty is the reason, that too is something that vitiates art. No serious art is easy to interpret. Nor is there ever a single valid interpretation of art. If art is good, there are many things to be said about it and much that will remain unsayable.

Yet, there are more and more pressures today on artists to explain themselves. Once, an artist was allowed to hide behind a vague and mysterious aura. The American abstract expressionist painters made grand pronouncements about their work that are so enigmatic they give away no hostages – nor do the kinds of epigrammatic comments made by Francis Bacon. Yet artists in Britain today are always offering explanations for what they do.

If you’re looking for the root cause of anything annoying, silly or spurious in the culture of art in 21stcentury Britain the source of the problem is never hard to locate. Once again the culprit is … public art, in which the popularization of art, the determination of institutions from parks to to local councils to be associated with it, and a lingering British Puritan visual clumsiness produce a lot of guff as artists try to promote the accessible virtues of their ideas.

As soon as you start saying what people want to hear, adapting your art to the common sense political and moral platitudes of ordinary speech, you betray subtlety and poetry. Artists presenting proposals for the Fourth Plinth, the Tate Turbine Hall and elsewhere should rebel again this. They should agree to all submit the woolliest and least explanatory pronouncements they can dream up. Something like: “The pictures I contemplate painting would constitute a halfway state, and an attempt to point out the direction of the future, without arriving there completely.”

That’s Jackson Pollock, writing a grant application in 1947. I don’t suppose it would get him much of a grant in Britain now. He’d have to explain what his webs and loops of abstract paint are all about … but he’d sit there chewing his pen, no more able to offer a simple explanation of them than the critic is half a century later.

4 Replies to “Enough With the Words!”

  1. Elatia Harris says:

    Hope art people are having a wordless experience in Ptown tonight, Deborah — but that they find the words to thank you afterwards.

  2. I had no idea visual artists are asked to explain the theory of their paintings to receive grants. How frustrating. How does one explain where the creativity comes from? You have three blogs that detail your artistic life, yet I’m sure the sum of these parts still wouldn’t entirely explain where your paintings come from. In short, the work speaks for itself! The viewer receives the painting, and experiences it, right? The artist is attempting to encapsulate a non-spacial, non-linear experience in two or three dimensions. Very difficult. we need to learn as a culture to accept the mystery of life and art, to know that we can’t explain it all.

    Great post, D.!

  3. The impulse to explain may have started in generosity of feeling, perhaps being flattered that anyone wants to know what you were doing, thinking, sensing and then simply answering, as best you (or anyone) can. In that context, talking about it doesn’t seem so bad. You cross a line when the explanation overwhelms the work and then becomes the work. Answering curiosity seems fine. That the work must have a rationale (or that explanation is a necessary sort of promotion) that bothers me.

  4. D, your natural generosity of spirit offers up a more benign explanation than my cynicism leans towards. Thank you for reminding me that often these things do start from good intentions.

    The issue for me is the obligatory nature of the language/explanation component in the commerce of today’s art world. There’s nothing gratuitous about it. So then it becomes a game, complete with the insincerity, the manipulation, the inauthenticity that result from that approach.

    C, Your poetic nature is more in line with mine. A friend sent this quote, which I think you will appreciate. It is the statement of a ceramic artist, Shuji Ikeda, about her work: “I want to communicate without language-then there is no misunderstanding.” (Thank you David Smith for this quote.)

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