A couple of friends and I drove up to a museum last week to catch the latest art breeze from New York. The museum, which I shall not name, is notoriously designed to educate boobs from the boonies (you and me), give them a taste of the current (Brooklyn) art scene and show them what real art (not the pretty pictures they paint or have on their walls) is about. Each exhibit contains a free-to-take home illustrated booklet explaining the artists’ work along with a wall panel of explanatory notes.
The three of us stood for some time in front of one large panel, trying to figure out its meaning. My companions, no intellectual lightweights, one, a noted university scholar, the other a prominent lawyer were totally baffled. I explained my theory about this kind of writing about art. I believe it is deliberately designed to be unintelligible because if you REALLY knew what they were saying you would never waste your $10 admission fee (to say nothing of your time.) “It’s a required course,” I explained. In order to get an MFA at Yale, you must be able to write an inherently meaningless, but seemingly profound essay like this before they’ll give you a degree”.
The problem with reconciling art and words is that art is a visual experience, not a literary or an auditory one and aside from a few helpful cues, the experiences are so different by their very nature that to use one to explain the other is confusing and usually futile. However, that doesn’t seem to keep an entire industry of art historians, writers and curators from trying. Yes, you can enhance a visual experience somewhat by knowing something theoretical or historical about it, but often, you just end up confusing the poor viewer. I know many people will disagree with me, but I often discover that they are self serving; they make their living pretending (to themselves and others) that they can actually teach you how to “see”. The artwork at the museum that day was pretty mediocre as art; but, if you read the handout or the complex “explanatory” material placed on the gallery walls, you would have thought you were in the Sistine Chapel.
Here’s a quote from one of the pamphlets I picked up:
“The early works in this exhibition point to the grounding of XXXX’s art in the formal, abstract aspects of Modernism, while the later works are categorized by the use of the highly flexible and articulate language of Modernism for deliberate and meditative social ends. Usually, art that is based on either the social or the political is ineffectual as the finger pointing is directed towards the morally obvious. XXXX, through his recent work, has held a mirror up to himself and the community he inhabits and the results are complex, nuanced, and often uncomfortably self-conscious – just like the truth.”
There has to be an easier way to describe this poor guy’s art, or, maybe his work really is “indescribable.” Too bad its quality doesn’t live up to its press. I taught art history for over twenty years at a university and the lesson I learned was, the greater the art, the easier it is to explain. It’s the bad stuff that requires babble.
Today’s post is a cautionary tale: don’t believe what you read about art. Most of it is curatorial nonsense, designed to impress rather than explain. I hope the message you get is to stay dubious and keep your s---- detector on at all times.
Re last week’s Post #54: I meant to have stronger images to go with my text but my all-knowing techie, Rosie, said they would be considered “pornographic” and pulled out. Moi?