Enough Already

The excellent book, Advice To Young Artists In A Postmodern Era by William V. Dunning is one that I think every artist should own. At one point, Dunning talks about the value of immersing oneself in art. This is what I'm doing at the moment. With the exception of a little bit of knitting and gardening to keep me grounded, I've spent the last few days immersing myself in thinking, reading, viewing and writing about contemporary art.

And I've come to a conclusion.

The denizens of the contemporary art world desperately need to drop what I refer to as 'art wank'.

Enough already. Enough dull academic shows that no one but a tiny elite care about. Enough 'clever' critical writing that says nothing. Enough postering. Enough big words. Enough drowning art in philosophy. Enough bullshit.

I know that art is often hard to write about - I'm currently trying to bash my artists' statement into shape and it's resisting furiously! - but the way most critics talk about art is just ridiculous.

I am tired of it. I am tired of feeling like an idiot when I try to plough my way through it. I've been making, looking at and reading about art for years. I studied it intensively in college and wrote essays on it. I still read about art constantly.

So if I can't understand what most art writers are on about, what chance does someone whose art education ended in high school have? On Friday I read an 'explanatory' pamphlet at the Arnolfini gallery that managed to make an already boring show even more dry, academic and obscure. I left the gallery wondering what the point of my visit had been. If I'd been visiting a contemporary gallery for the first time, I certainly would have felt no desire to go back. After this sort of experience it's easy to see why people think that modern art is rubbish.

In my 30's, I returned to art college after a break of about six years spent raising my son. It was my third shot at getting my degree. Having been thrown out of an English course at the age of 18 and then having left a Fine Art degree when I accidentally got pregnant at the end of my first year, I was understandably quite nervous about my ability to do the work.

I vividly remember being set a reading list that included the art historian, Rosalind Krauss. All summer I struggled valiantly with it, trying to comprehend her points and getting more and more disheartened. Her words seemed to have nothing at all to do with my own experience of being an artist and the concerns and ideas that were floating around my head when I was making sculpture. I ended up wondering how I was going to cope at art college? If I couldn't understand this set text, surely I was FAR too stupid to go.

On the first day, we sat in a large circle and the tutors asked us how we'd got on with the reading list. Someone confessed to finding Krauss impenetrable. 'Ah yes,' said the Head of Sculpture, "she is very difficult, isn't she. I don't really understand her myself, to be honest." The entire group let out an audible sigh of relief and I sat there thinking, "well if YOU don't even understand it, why the hell did you assign it?"

I never had to refer to Krauss again and at the end of my degree, I took great joy in turfing the damn woman off my bookshelves.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying, 'don't read'. I love to read and always have. I especially love non-fiction and I read widely and voraciously both inside and outside my field. A lot of my ideas come from my reading. What I'm saying is, when we write about art, can we try to sound as if it matters, as if it's alive, vibrant and important and as if the writer is actually interested in what they're discussing.

I do understand that art historians and those who analyse art, experience it in a very different way to those who actually make it. And I also know that every artist needs to find a way to talk about their work. Many artists look at it as a necessary evil but I've always found it both helpful and vital to define my practice in the right words.

What I don't think is helpful and vital is when the convoluted language of the historians, critics and philosophers infects the language of artists. I don't think we're doing our work any favours if we cloak it in fancy buzz words and arcane concepts. I know that every profession has its jargon and I know that some concepts are very difficult to explain but the art world needs to stop pretending to be smarter than it is because really, I don't think we're fooling anyone!

Still, on the plus side, 'art wank' is an excellent cure for insomnia...

44 thoughts on “Enough Already

  1. Just found your article on twitter and I have to say I not only really like it I couldn't agree more with you. I wish art critics and writers would just stop all the gibberish and refer to the work as it is, transmit what the artist really wanted to say with it not what they think it means and in more plain understandable words.

    [Reply]

    Reply:

    Thanks MValenti, I always find that I enjoy artists writing or being interviewed about their practice much more than critical art writing. The academic side of the force is of little use to me as a practising artist, although I accept that its value to academics.

    [Reply]

    Reply
  2. Just found your article on twitter and I have to say I not only really like it I couldn't agree more with you. I wish art critics and writers would just stop all the gibberish and refer to the work as it is, transmit what the artist really wanted to say with it not what they think it means and in more plain understandable words.

    [Reply]

    Reply:

    Thanks MValenti, I always find that I enjoy artists writing or being interviewed about their practice much more than critical art writing. The academic side of the force is of little use to me as a practising artist, although I accept that its value to academics.

    [Reply]

    Reply
  3. then you might like our website: http://artwank.tumblr.com/

    Please feel free to send contributions in the same format.

    Should be example of 'art wank', or 'art speak', i.e. arty, intellectual sounding statements that actually mean very little or nothing at all.

    [Reply]

    Reply:

    Thanks for the link, Arthur, I pointed people in your direction in my latest link post.

    [Reply]

    Reply
  4. then you might like our website: http://artwank.tumblr.com/

    Please feel free to send contributions in the same format.

    Should be example of 'art wank', or 'art speak', i.e. arty, intellectual sounding statements that actually mean very little or nothing at all.

    [Reply]

    Reply:

    Thanks for the link, Arthur, I pointed people in your direction in my latest link post.

    [Reply]

    Reply
  5. Kirsty, this blog entry made me smile. Right on the button. I lost a whole year of college trying to fathom various canons of academic art writing. Like you I discovered that tutors and visiting artist lecturers also accepted that academic art writing was impenetrable but this was our lot and our task to try and work through the ideas. Personally I think that it is bad writing and I was irritated by the need to pretend otherwise. I now conclude that academic art writing is a separate discipline to the actual practice of art making and is for a small pool of academics and those who enjoy unravelling obscure ideas. I noticed that art students and artist lecturers who became more engaged with academic art writing produced less work and spent more time talking about the ideas they had for work and writings about art work. I also got trapped for some time thinking if I could just understand the some of the ideas my work would benefit. It didn’t. I stopped working and it took me sometime to resume again.

    I will look up the ‘Advice to Young Artists’ book. I love ‘Art & Fear’ by Bayles & Orland which I think you have mentioned elsewhere on your web pages. Sadly I didn’t discover this until after I left college.

    [Reply]

    Reply:

    Hi Artichoke, thanks for your insightful comment, your experience matches my own (and a lot of other art students, I expect!) Have you read Ted Orland's new book, The View From The Studio Door? It's also very good although I think that Art & Fear is more useful. I've also reached a place where I can agree to differ with the academics - they can do their thing but I've decided not to engage with it all that much. They can do their analysis, I'll be over here making the actual art!

    [Reply]

    Reply
  6. Kirsty, this blog entry made me smile. Right on the button. I lost a whole year of college trying to fathom various canons of academic art writing. Like you I discovered that tutors and visiting artist lecturers also accepted that academic art writing was impenetrable but this was our lot and our task to try and work through the ideas. Personally I think that it is bad writing and I was irritated by the need to pretend otherwise. I now conclude that academic art writing is a separate discipline to the actual practice of art making and is for a small pool of academics and those who enjoy unravelling obscure ideas. I noticed that art students and artist lecturers who became more engaged with academic art writing produced less work and spent more time talking about the ideas they had for work and writings about art work. I also got trapped for some time thinking if I could just understand the some of the ideas my work would benefit. It didn’t. I stopped working and it took me sometime to resume again.

    I will look up the ‘Advice to Young Artists’ book. I love ‘Art & Fear’ by Bayles & Orland which I think you have mentioned elsewhere on your web pages. Sadly I didn’t discover this until after I left college.

    [Reply]

    Reply:

    Hi Artichoke, thanks for your insightful comment, your experience matches my own (and a lot of other art students, I expect!) Have you read Ted Orland's new book, The View From The Studio Door? It's also very good although I think that Art & Fear is more useful. I've also reached a place where I can agree to differ with the academics - they can do their thing but I've decided not to engage with it all that much. They can do their analysis, I'll be over here making the actual art!

    [Reply]

    Reply
  7. agreed! wise woman, you are.
    no wonder the "average" person (whatever that means) says they don't understand contemporary art. i hear this comment frequently about my work, which is reductive, minimal. people think they're supposed to be looking for hidden intellectual clues into interpreting contemporary work, rather than experiencing it in a personal way. to that end, many people miss the point of art altogether.

    [Reply]

    Reply:

    I wish we could persuade people to just trust themselves when looking at art, Stephanie - I think they'd enjoy it a lot more. Not that there's anything wrong with educating yourself about art - it can indeed deepen your appreciation - but at the end of the day our visceral reactions are our primary experience of art and should be honoured.

    [Reply]

    Reply
  8. agreed! wise woman, you are.
    no wonder the "average" person (whatever that means) says they don't understand contemporary art. i hear this comment frequently about my work, which is reductive, minimal. people think they're supposed to be looking for hidden intellectual clues into interpreting contemporary work, rather than experiencing it in a personal way. to that end, many people miss the point of art altogether.

    [Reply]

    Reply:

    I wish we could persuade people to just trust themselves when looking at art, Stephanie - I think they'd enjoy it a lot more. Not that there's anything wrong with educating yourself about art - it can indeed deepen your appreciation - but at the end of the day our visceral reactions are our primary experience of art and should be honoured.

    [Reply]

    Reply
  9. Yes, yes and again YES! I returned to college after retirement to study art and art history. While I love both disciplines, the deliberate art speak of art historians drivs me up the wall. I started a blog (ChezNamasteNancy.blogspot.com) to write about art in a way that makes it interesting and approachable. Because of my blog, I got a "job" writing about art for the Examiner.com. I have vowed never to use words that obscure the topic rather than illustrate it and I never, never talk down to the reader. I wonder when that started - when art critics and art historians felt that they wanted to keep art to a select little clique and so, made their writing (and often their art work) as obscure as possible.

    [Reply]

    Reply:

    Nice blog, Nancy.

    I think most jargon is about excluding the plebs. I wonder sometimes if any of the critics and historians even understand what they're going on about or if the Emperor truly does have no clothes?

    [Reply]

    Reply
  10. Yes, yes and again YES! I returned to college after retirement to study art and art history. While I love both disciplines, the deliberate art speak of art historians drivs me up the wall. I started a blog (ChezNamasteNancy.blogspot.com) to write about art in a way that makes it interesting and approachable. Because of my blog, I got a "job" writing about art for the Examiner.com. I have vowed never to use words that obscure the topic rather than illustrate it and I never, never talk down to the reader. I wonder when that started - when art critics and art historians felt that they wanted to keep art to a select little clique and so, made their writing (and often their art work) as obscure as possible.

    [Reply]

    Reply:

    Nice blog, Nancy.

    I think most jargon is about excluding the plebs. I wonder sometimes if any of the critics and historians even understand what they're going on about or if the Emperor truly does have no clothes?

    [Reply]

    Reply
  11. Kristy
    I remember, London, late 1970's when I heard an artist talking about his new piece, a completely white canvas being the culmination of his life in art, thinking "what" does that mean.

    My husband and I watch series on artist and them describing their work and say to each other ... we just need a line of two of jibberish describing our art and we would have it made. People eat it up with a spoon.

    Unfortunately, I am not *that* cool or imaginative when describing what I do. (when I have time to do it). Almost every piece I have ever done in a sense of "fine art" "folk art" is always an just an experience of my sub-conscience. It just happens and I have no fancy words to describe it. Which is probably whey I am still working as a graphic artist and not showing in an exclusive art gallery in New York. ;)

    So, bravo.
    Kim

    [Reply]

    Reply:

    Hi Kim, it is difficult to talk well about art, especially when art schools so strongly push the academic language on art students. I sometimes find myself struggling to avoid it but I just try to keep my writing grounded and real and hope that my intention comes across.

    [Reply]

    Reply
  12. Kristy
    I remember, London, late 1970's when I heard an artist talking about his new piece, a completely white canvas being the culmination of his life in art, thinking "what" does that mean.

    My husband and I watch series on artist and them describing their work and say to each other ... we just need a line of two of jibberish describing our art and we would have it made. People eat it up with a spoon.

    Unfortunately, I am not *that* cool or imaginative when describing what I do. (when I have time to do it). Almost every piece I have ever done in a sense of "fine art" "folk art" is always an just an experience of my sub-conscience. It just happens and I have no fancy words to describe it. Which is probably whey I am still working as a graphic artist and not showing in an exclusive art gallery in New York. ;)

    So, bravo.
    Kim

    [Reply]

    Reply:

    Hi Kim, it is difficult to talk well about art, especially when art schools so strongly push the academic language on art students. I sometimes find myself struggling to avoid it but I just try to keep my writing grounded and real and hope that my intention comes across.

    [Reply]

    Reply
  13. Couldn't agree more. It's all so silly. The art world does itself no favors by acting smarter than it really is.

    Thanks for this.

    [Reply]

    Reply:

    You're welcome, Terry, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    [Reply]

    Reply
  14. Heck yeah! Some people spend a lot of energy just to make themselves sound important rather than say anything meaningful about the art.

    So well said. Thanks!

    [Reply]

    Reply:

    I always hope the art is saying all the meaningful things itself but I learnt while curating that people really appreciate having 'a way into the work' so I've learnt to talk about my work too. It's not easy though, you're always treading a fine line between leaving it mysterious enough that they can bring their own experiences to the work and over-explaining the work and killing it dead. I also try to avoid sounding like a pretentious pillock!

    [Reply]

    Reply
  15. Heck yeah! Some people spend a lot of energy just to make themselves sound important rather than say anything meaningful about the art.

    So well said. Thanks!

    [Reply]

    Reply:

    I always hope the art is saying all the meaningful things itself but I learnt while curating that people really appreciate having 'a way into the work' so I've learnt to talk about my work too. It's not easy though, you're always treading a fine line between leaving it mysterious enough that they can bring their own experiences to the work and over-explaining the work and killing it dead. I also try to avoid sounding like a pretentious pillock!

    [Reply]

    Reply
  16. Bravo, Kirsty! I'm always saddened by how much dry, academic language distances us from the viscerally joyous experience art can be. Our local fine-craft museum constantly speaks in these rarified terms, which, in my opinion, sucks most of the life out of the work.

    [Reply]

    Reply:

    Yes, that's it entirely, Sister Diane. As someone who is passionate about art, it just makes me so cross when museums, galleries and even artists do this - don't they want people to engage with the work? Or is art supposed to be a club that only the elite can join?

    [Reply]

    Reply
  17. Bravo, Kirsty! I'm always saddened by how much dry, academic language distances us from the viscerally joyous experience art can be. Our local fine-craft museum constantly speaks in these rarified terms, which, in my opinion, sucks most of the life out of the work.

    [Reply]

    Reply:

    Yes, that's it entirely, Sister Diane. As someone who is passionate about art, it just makes me so cross when museums, galleries and even artists do this - don't they want people to engage with the work? Or is art supposed to be a club that only the elite can join?

    [Reply]

    Reply
  18. If art is incomprehensible, it's not worth looking at. I will never understand why someone whose art consists of a phone book placed on the floor in the middle of an empty room will get attention, funding, and praise, while most artists labor in obscurity.

    [Reply]

    Reply
  19. Vie

    Yes, yes and so much yes!!!
    I'm on an art course at the moment and I have my own space in the studio.
    I think i'll print out some quotes from this and stick it on my wall for all tutors to see.
    Because I like to think, but the level of pretentiousness in art has gotten ridiculous.

    [Reply]

    Reply
  20. anitachowdry

    Thankyou so much for this! I am struggling with a reading list for my M.A. at the moment - though I must say, Rosalind Krauss is nowhere near as bad as Michel Foucault - I need a dictionary for every second high-falutin' word (and you can imagine how I pronounce his surname!)

    [Reply]

    Reply
  21. Susan Will

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! Your term 'Art Wank' will keep me light-hearted (and probably giggling) whenever I have to read such stuff.

    [Reply]

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *