If there’s anything worse than academic theoreticians or art historians philosophizing about art, it’s artists trying to explain their own work. Matisse famously ordered painters to cut off their tongues because, he said, the decision to be an artist “takes away the right to express oneself with anything but a brush.” The problem is that visual images are extremely difficult to translate into words. Art is something that’s experienced, not intellectually understood.
The best an art historian can do when he writes about art is to explain how the work relates to its time, the social, technological and economic forces that influenced its creation. For example, it’s useful to know how the invention of the camera led to the ultra realistic painting of the mid-19th century; how the artists of the period attempted to compete with and surpass this new technology that threatened their livelihood. Or, it helps to know that scientific studies into the physics of color and light encouraged Impressionism. But none of the above technical information really affects the main goal of the artist: to create something of INEXPLICABLE beauty. Art theory is only words.
When I taught art history, I used to warn my students to beware of writing about art that was “over their heads.” It should be simple and easily understood. To demonstrate, I would take a paragraph out of their text and ask the class what it meant. Silence. Nobody understood it. “Don’t worry, class”, I would comfort them, “I didn’t understand it either. And what’s more, the author doesn’t know what he’s talking about; he’s just filling space (that’s what he’s paid to do) and assuming you would think you were too stupid to know what he was talking about.
My favorite example of this kind of meaningless ARTSPEAK happened at a lecture I attended at the Whitney Museum, when they had a branch in the former Champion Building in Stamford. The speaker (I won’t mention his name; although it is unlikely he will ever read this blog) was a noted art theoretician, the author of several totally unreadable books on Aesthetics. I was curious to see whether he was more intelligible in person than on the page (he wasn’t.) At one point, he used a term I had never heard before in all my years of studying and teaching art: “anarchic formalism” – an apparent oxymoron. Rather than embarrass him at the worshipful Q&A that followed, I went up to him on his way out to ask what the term meant. He had the decency to blush, “I made it up," he confessed, "it sounded good."
So, the moral of this post is two-fold:
- Never listen to artists talk about their art, or, if you do listen, don’t believe a word they say; they are either making it up as they go along, or quoting what someone else once said about their work.
- Avoid aesthetic theory and philosophy like the plague. It has nothing to do with art.
The illustrations for this blog come from my large Curley's Diner triptych, except I didn't know it was going to be about Curley's until I was well into it. I created the story 'after the fact' based on what had come out of my imagination. The woman in the center is Maria, part owner of the diner. The man lusting after her is a notorious Albanian house painter, well known for his romantic escapades. But I had no idea who was going to appear until they showed up. I told you; never listen to artists explain their work.