I read Chris Gehman’s “Rhetorical Maneuvers in Contemporary Art, Part 1” with a sort of hilarious embarrassment. A diatribe against the expanding gap between artspeak and art, Gehman draws attention to the fact that much contemporary art takes obsessive minutiae as its subject. Yet, so much of the writing around this art (artist statements, didactic wall texts, curatorial essays, reviews) propose grandiose framings derivative of the “radical, critical” intentions of the artist that are simply not substantiated by the actual work. I know well this sort of gobbledygook, as when an exhibition essay or press release is incomprehensible and I feel mostly stupid as I read and re-read. And yet! I write these same texts, and while it is not ever my intention to be convoluted, perhaps I cannot recognize my own obscurity for being immersed in it?
I come to art through philosophy and admit that I am inclined to think of art as a substantially intellectual endeavour. Gehman proposes a number of contextual factors for this (the conception of an artist as an intellectual worker, as opposed to a craftsperson), one of which is “the rhetorical legacy of the postwar avant-gardes, on the one hand, and politically engaged art on the other…what the post-conceptual, post-minimalist high art strain and the politically engaged strain share is an emphasis on context, concepts and language.” Contexts, concepts and language are precisely those things that I consider when thinking through art, and in fact I try to productively emphasize these things through my curatorial framings.
Part of the reason why I think through art in the ways that I do has to do with how I conceptualize the potential of art: to propose new paradigms for understanding the world. I have a palate for political art, or political readings of art, and this is implicated in the questions I pose to a work and, inevitably, the proposals a work gives back to me as its audience. Taking Gehman’s critique seriously, then perhaps the appropriate response will be to allow the work itself to dictate if it is political, and not by recourse to the artist’s understanding of their work, but by carefully observing the way it functions in the world. If a work is truly political, then it must reverberate outside of the space of its presentation. Which raises a curious discrepancy between those minute obsessions of the artist and what a work becomes, which is fundamentally unpredictable though not without expectation.