“Is art running out of ideas? Artists forced to explain modern art”, runs the headline of Tom Lubbock’s piece in the Independent yesterday. After discussing viewer experience and publicity interpretation of Martin Creed’s Work No. 850, a performance work in which relays of young runners sprint one at a time from one end of the central Duveen Gallery to the other, he breaks down the problem as such:
What we’re up against here are two of contemporary art’s guiding imperatives. Rule 1) Justification by meaning: the worth and interest of a work resides in what it’s about. Rule 2) Absolute freedom of interpretation: a work is “about” anything that can, at a pinch, be said about it.
In short, meanings are arbitrary, but compulsory. And this double bind holds almost universal sway. Whenever you learn that a work explores or investigates or raises questions about something, that it’s concerned with issues around this or notions of that or debates about the other, you know you’re in its grip.
It’s weird how people can’t resist. If you want to make art sound serious, this is simply the way you do it. Read any gallery wall-caption or leaflet or catalogue, and see how long it is before the writer commends the work solely on the basis of what it’s about. And then note how it is isn’t really about that at all.
Lubbock goes on to discuss two examples in which the expressed meaning of an artwork limited its interpretation. The piece is a great meditation on the act of viewing and criticism and well worth the read in its entirety. So much so, in fact, that Jonathan Jones at the Guardian responded today with his own thoughts on the subject, reducing these ideas to vast generalizations about art that needs interpretation. “It is a vice of second-rate art to come with its own eloquent explanation attached.” writes Jones, “If an artist can translate the meaning and purpose of a work into easily understandable words, it means one of two things. Either the artist is lying, in order to ease the way with patrons and funders; or the artist is a fool.”
Come on. Now artists who attempt to explain their work are liars seeking a quick buck? The argument makes no sense, and Jones doesn’t even try to support it, citing no examples where he found this to be the case. The writer then goes on to identify public art as the source of all these art-that-needs-its-own-explanation troubles in Britian, an awfully Eurocentric view considering American art suffers from the same issues, and receives a fraction of the public funding.
Interestingly, Jones uses a quote from a Jackson Pollock grant application as a guide for how artists should describe their work. “The pictures I contemplate painting would constitute a halfway state, and an attempt to point out the direction of the future, without arriving there completely.” writes Pollock, nearly 60 years ago. Jones says he likes the statement because it doesn’t tell us what to think and indeed, the artist himself described an interest in passive viewers who didn’t bring “subject matter or preconceived ideas…to the work“.
But the difference between Pollock and many artists working today, is that Pollock intended the dialog between the art and its audience to be one way. Certainly, that way of thinking still has its place, though the very fact that the turn of phrase “limits the conversation”, is frequently applied to art making and statements suggests a far different intent for art and an evolved discourse. While text lacking explanation may have suited Pollock, exhibition labels and artist statements today often seek to involve the viewer in other ways, so vagueness may not always be appropriate. Interactive artist David Rokeby provides the best example I can think of in this regard, writing very clear, often “explainy” statements.
Very Nervous System is the third generation of interactive sound installations which I have created. In these systems, I use video cameras, image processors, computers, synthesizers and a sound system to create a space in which the movements of one’s body create sound and/or music.
I created the work for many reasons, but perhaps the most pervasive reason was a simple impulse towards contrariness. The computer as a medium is strongly biased. And so my impulse while using the computer was to work solidly against these biases. Because the computer is purely logical, the language of interaction should strive to be intuitive. Because the computer removes you from your body, the body should be strongly engaged. Because the computer’s activity takes place on the tiny playing fields of integrated circuits, the encounter with the computer should take place in human-scaled physical space. Because the computer is objective and disinterested, the experience should be intimate.
Clearly, the vague Jackson Pollock-esque statement isn’t appropriate for this artist, and Rokeby’s specificity, which only continues in the statement certainly isn’t hurting the art. I’m simply not convinced explanation or content gets in the way of art — though I will agree that there is no replacement for its experience. And, in this regard, I can’t imagine there’d be much dissent.