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…