Tuesday 1 April 2014

The Signposts

Getting to Know you
photo collage

My experience as a curator has shown me that given the extensive history of art, the huge variety of media, the increasingly mixed cultural influences and the infinite variety of human experience, it is impossible for everyone to look at works of art, whether objectively or subjectively, and understand exactly what they are about irrespective of the artist who made them and the period when they were made. Knowledge of art, intuition, interpretation and imagination can lead to a rich and meaningful interaction with each artwork, but given Art’s propensity for symbol and metaphor, for abstraction, for hiding meaning and for conceptualizing, given its subjective, expressive nature, any contextualizing can only help enrich the viewing experience.
This is why I don’t understand the ‘Untitled’ title so many artists hide behind. Assigning titles to the works is one of the ways artists have of enhancing the viewer’s experience. I’ve always felt it is ingenuous for artists to pretend they had no intent at all in creating their work, lazy of them to hide behind the viewer’s freedom of interpretation, presumptuous to assume their work MUST be communicating SOMETHING and arrogant for them to be miffed or insulted when audiences don’t get ’it’. If the artist really wanted the total surrender of the work’s meaning or reading, he/she would not sign it, because the signature itself is not only a mark of authorship and ownership, but also a directional signpost. In fact, if the artist really wanted the total surrender of the work’s meaning or reading he/ she would not make it.
Performers know that lost viewers are frustrated viewers; as a curator of a ‘public’ gallery, I see them become hostile or indifferent viewers. While the artist may pretend to be leaving the work to the viewer’s interpretation once it’s displayed in a gallery, the viewer isn’t fooled, and even when the image is recognizable and comforting, she/he suspects, even hopes that there is more there than meets the eye. In fact, she/he may indeed ‘see’ it but too often lacks the clue that will reveal the specific way that artist has made connections between sense and intellect.
Enter The Title. The title is like a welcoming hand gesture, directional arrow, or a permission to enter, even if it’s mysterious. It gives viewers a clue as to where to stand vis-à-vis the work so as to be most aware that they see through the artist’s eyes as well as their own (like Stereovision!) as they venture into the artist’s domain.
Besides the signature and the work’s title, enter The Artist’s Statement. It is another way that artists have to give the viewer further insight into the work. I know way too well that many artists are loath to write, and if they write, to refer to their own histories and motivations in their texts, preferring to hide or omit from public knowledge the triggers that inspire their imagery (Joseph Beuys apparently was one). Of those who do write statements, it seems they’ve been encouraged to think that writing sweeping philosophical essays, profound aesthetic pronouncements or plugged-in historical treatises will make their work appear ‘expert’ or important. Unless they are philosophers, academics, critics or historians, I don’t see that it works that way. On the contrary, these types of writings seem more often to alienate non-art expert viewers, even those who might otherwise be happily inclined toward the work, even those who might be tempted to buy it.
Whatever it is, there is always a human experience that triggers and informs the desire to create, or its intent. The good news is that indeed, as art therapists will avow, everything is revealed in a work of art.  The bad news for those who don’t wish to communicate beyond their image is that indeed, viewers who can’t ‘read them will nevertheless ‘see’ and sense this, they will attach their own meaning and interpretation to the images, and they will walk away from the work of art convinced that after all, the artist doesn’t matter more than as a technician, only THEY matter in the art/viewer exchange. They will leave richer for the viewing experience, impressed with the artist’s selflessness, convinced that once made, the art works belong to anyone who looks and that artists can starve in their garrets with the satisfaction of having made a valuable gift to the world.
This is, I think, counterproductive. Especially since, by ‘saying’ nothing, or by being too self-effacing, reclusive or secretive, artists allow the silence they create to be filled by others whose agendas may not be compatible with theirs.
Since much of what is communicated about art happens through words (alas) artists’ personal statements not only let them clue in non-expert viewers as to their core intent, but also allow artists to at least be a part of the exchange about their work in a professional arena.
For all the beauty, meaning and importance of images, people who are not artists are increasingly trained to neglect their visual literacy (consuming images does not mean literacy in understanding such things as themes, subtexts and symbols) and to focus on their word and number-based literacy. While it is true that visual elements can communicate as easily as the spoken or written languages, the works of contemporary visual artists all too often address people who consume but who do not necessarily understand this method of communication. They may not even know they are being ‘addressed’ in a ‘language’. Some translation then becomes necessary.
It is true that for the ‘known’ artists, educators, curators, writers, and critics have taken on the role of translator, but they are themselves creative people. Sometimes they are agenda-driven, intent on promoting their own concepts or views. Sometimes they feel they have to compete with artists, or they are themselves frustrated ones. Sometimes, they ignore the work altogether. Other times they are so inspired by the imagery they go to such breathtaking heights of interpretation that they take its meaning to places the artist did not intend, expect or even agree with. They also tend to rely on specialized language, so-called ‘art speak’, or on academic terminology or referencing. This is good, but since they are perceived as expert their interpretations could obscure or override the artist’s intent. A statement by the artist can offer viewers a direct, unmediated line to the work, especially if they cannot meet the artist in person or watch the artist at work.
“But I’m not a writer!” wails the artist in protest. And not all your viewers are artists or art experts, and not all artists know your medium or technique or share your intent. It’s complicated, but it can also be more accessible if you want a broader audience than family, friends, peers or fellow academics. It’s your call. It’s your art, after all.

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