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.


2 thoughts on “

  1. Juliann Wilding says:

    i’m glad you posted Gehman’s article; this is a conversation i’ve wanted to have for awhile. i agree with a lot of what Gehman says, though not always with his reasoning.

    contemporary curatorial practice, art criticism, as well as the current state of art school/the art “industry” does force potential artists to believe that it is as important/more important to be able to write/wax off about the work/idea/concept than it is to actually just make the work. this is a crippling and frustrating situation. i would far, far rather make work than ever write an artist’s statement or a description of the work. if that makes me a “craftsman” rather than an “artist” in the eyes of curators/critics, i don’t care – i just want to make. and when it does come to writing about the work, i believe in the old tenet of clarity of language being the most powerful way to convey accurate + precise meaning, and the grammar rule that if you CAN say something in less words, you should. overblown hyperbole using complicated language and academic terminology backs itself away from direct meaning and instead creates an un-necessary and alienating cloud.

    my personal belief is that the art itself IS the communication, therefore it does not require further rhetoric by the artist, and actually the potential of the work is somewhat diminished by the interference of superfluous text. for an artist, one’s time should be spent making work, and it is a physical as well as intellectual act. why would i write an essay to accompany a collection of visual pieces, unless the work was not strong enough to convey meaning, create an experience, excite the imagination? i don’t want to tell people what to think about my work. i want them to tell me what my work makes them think about.

    maybe i am wrong, but i also think that for curators/critics/art writers , there is a lot of time to think, read, and research. the job entails those things; the job is, in part, those things. therefore the output tends to be overwrought, verbose, and pretentious, but also condescending. there is just too much time spent analyzing.

    i don’t think you should feel embarrassed, but yes, you do write these kinds of texts. i think rather than embarrassment it’s more productive to discover why. it’s not i don’t think there is a place for academic discourse regarding works of art. but to what end?

    when he says “The artist has learned that to be engaged with physical materials and processes is to be a mere craftsperson, while to work with concepts is to be respected as an intellectual worker …” i think it is more realistic, and personally desirable, for an artist to be a combination of the two. and many artists do this successfully. but the work itself ought to convey the concept or the politics. one shouldn’t have to hammer people over the head with it.

    recently H said “i wonder if i should get somebody really skilled + trained in music theory to explain my songwriting to me,” and everyone in the room yelled “NO! just write your songs, keep writing songs . . .”

  2. Juliann Wilding says:

    i guess the other thing i keep thinking of is that when a text or curatorial essay is overly didactic and proposes grandiose framings, it can read as absolute and neglectful of the potential for alternate perspective, whereas interpreting any work is an intellectually/instinctively inclusive activity.

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