Generally speaking perusing the messages boards on museum sites is an activity too geeky even for me. But this isn’t to say that interesting thoughts don’t get posted on these sites from time to time. For instance, yesterday Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes, posted a link to mnartists.org, a Walker Museum message board and an answer he gave to one of the 10 questions he gave responses to on his blog. Greens highlighted response to the question of what non-art-world factor that is the greatest influence on art made today, makes a well thought out argument for degeneration (particularly of societies, cultures and political systems) being this factor, even if initially I didn’t agree with it. In fact, I began with the thought I couldn’t agree less with this answer, but then I read critic Patricia Brigg’s response who cited the work of Foucault and Althuser as the greatest influence on art making, and promptly moved her statements to the top of my “wrong” answers list. Interestingly enough, when I later revisited her answer, I realized that what she is saying has quite a bit in common with the thoughts of Green, and even — interestingly enough, with the curators of the Whitney Biennial (who cited anger and dissatistaction with the current state of political affairs as a uniting them,) since Briggs point was that artists are concerned with the idea of how institutional power effects individual identity (ideas which are most famously articulated by these philosophers, though you need to wade through a bunch of crap about postmodernism to get to that kernel.)
When put this way, I can get behind a few of these ideas, though I have found it difficult to come to any kind of resolution on a statement that accurately pin points the driving force behind art making today. If pressed I would say that digital and media culture continues to be one of great influence, and is at least equally important to cited opinions of the critics above. The clout of this “non-art-world factor” can be seen across all mediums, most obviously in photography, whereby the most common question among viewers is now whether or not the work has been digitally manipulated. As evidenced on Ed Winkleman’s blog (see anon comments,) even the frequently trumpeted artist Edward Burtynsky does not escape this query. Furthering the point of digital influence on artistic endevors are architects who use Autocad for virtually everything these days, the results of which are some what mixed (see every PS1 young architects commission since 2000.) Many sculptors also find this program useful. Countless examples of the influence of photoshop come from the field of painting some of the more notable examples being Jeff Koons and Ann Craven, and of course it goes without saying that the field of New Media reflects this change as well, since digital technologies are their medium of choice.
Having spent some time on Green’s showcased Q&A at mnartists.org, I would like to touch upon another answer he gives in this forum which expresses ideas I take issue with. On the subject of text, the critic gives this response the question, Visual artists have increasingly provided dense texts to be read by viewers in order to explain their work. When does the visual then become the literary? Shouldn’t visual art be something to be experienced visually?
Yes. Blame art schools, which require artists to produce statements and such. Then blame galleries for including artist statements in press releases/etc. Written artists’ statements are a total waste of time. When an artist receives his/her BA or MFA, he/she should be required to burn anything resembling a written artist’s statement. An artist’s statement is his/her work.
(BTW, curators are responsible for text-love too. They’re in love with wall-text. The Whitney, in particular, seems unable to present an exhibit without accompanying novel-length texts. This year’s Whitney Biennial was a bad show for plenty of reasons, but the thousands of words of wall-text the show apparently required should have been a tip-off to the Whitney that it had a disaster on its floors. Same with another recent Whitney curatorial clumping: ‘Remote Viewing.’
While I agree that wall text* and artist statements are often poorly executed, I think it is a mistake to lump the two text related activities together, because the assumption is then that the purpose of an artist statement is solely to do with the viewer and the mounting of exhibitions. Artist’s statements are not a waste of time, and to suggest otherwise does not take into account the value in articulating ones art making objectives. Since the rules of writing require focus to build effective arguments, the practice can in turn have significant payoffs in the studio. It can help an artist find focus in the studio if this is lacking, and can also lead the artist to some clarity on whether the work they are making supports the statements they have spelled out. Greater standards need to be applied to the practice of artist writing, because it is a proven means of advancing art.
For this reason I am almost always dismissive of work that is accompanied by poor statements. It is indicative of an artist who is either not sufficiently engaged in the work they produce, or merely submissive to the rules of formalism. In either case, the work has limited value. Moreover, history proves this point several times over. With only a few exceptions, the major artists of the 20th century have all written statements on their work that match publication standards. If we are to learn anything from history, it is that the best artists do not work solely within the confines of their studio.
*The best museum example of this coming from the Max Ernst show at the Met last year which featured text that read “Ernst was a handsome man with piercing blue eyes“, and divided the stages of his career up by which wife he was with. In contrast, the very same museum responsible for the Max Ernest exhibition also launched the Manet/Velazquez exhibition only two years prior, which was not only a curatorial tour de force in design and concept, but used wall text that provided historical background on the work that would not otherwise be available to viewer. In my 15 years of viewing art this exhibition is by far and away the best I have seen.