Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Does Explanation Destroy Art?

An interesting dialog followed a provocative pronouncement on Gallery Hopper the other day:
From an interview with Rinko Kawauchi, a Japanese photographer I am unfamiliiar with, comes what is possibly the world's worst interview question:
Miss Kawauchi, your photos bring me into a world of quiet contemplation, your camera captures the most intricate details of every day life, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary and revealing a lyrical rhythm to our daily lives and surroundings. Before I go into your motifs and motivation, may I start by asking you what cameras you use?
I agree with Todd, that this is a terrible set-up to the question (and I actually don't like to ask photographers that question until I'm in their studio, where I can see for myself what cameras they're actually talking about, not being an expert on the subtle differences...at least not enough to where their answer would tell me anything important in an interview). But it was something a commenter noted in the discussion that really got me wondering:

I saw a woman on the street the other day wearing a t-shirt saying, "Explanation Destroys Art." This may sound extreme. But there is some truth to the statement.
I've heard this idea in various forms before, but it's never rung true to me. I understand fully well that what a photograph or sculpture or video expresses is often unexpressible in words, but the notion that the effort destroys the work in question makes no sense to me. If that were true, then the opposite would seem to have to be as well: a painting of a particular scene in a novel would destroy the prose. After all, are words any less prone to the supposed destructive forces of images than images are those of words?

What I think people who subscribe to that view actually mean is that "Explanation destroys the experience of Art for me." I don't think there's any point in disputing that...I wouldn't know what enhances or destroys the experience for any other individual...it's a totally personal thing. But I have several objections to the notion that explanation destroys art in general.

First is simply the idea that it can. Many artists I know are so secure in what they're doing that the oddest interpretation of their work imaginable seems to only amuse them. Even when the viewer gets it exactly wrong (i.e., the opposite of the intent), they respond with a generous acknowledgment that whatever the viewer sees is valuable because it demonstrates that at least they're not ambivalent (and isn't communication of some sort---the momentary spanning of the gulf between us---the ultimate intent of any art---and if so, isn't explanation proof of its success on that level?). So if a wholly mistaken interpretation of the work can't destroy it, how could anything short of that?

What the wearer of that T-shirt might have meant (although it's not clear) is that explanation of the art by the artist (i.e., the dreaded explanatory text) destroys it. Here again though, I don't see this. Wall text annoys me because I feel obligated to read it and often don't have time, not because it takes anything away from the work, IMO. I'm fully capable of ignoring it. And text can be an
integral part of a piece (but not immediately clearly such), so it's silly to make sweeping generalizations about when it's destructive.

Secondly, explanations are simply another form of expression. If art can take as subject matter any part of the human experience, then how is literal interpretations of images (certainly just one part of the human experience) any less valid a form of expression? The message on this T-shirt seems to suggest that visual art is a higher (more delicate) art form than spoken or written art, which I wholly reject. Again, no one would suggest that a visual interpretation of a written or spoken art "destroyed" the work. It might not capture its essence very well, but it wouldn't take anything away from it unless it was used as a substitute. (
Which is another possible interpretation of that message, actually...the idea that explanation, in lieu of experiencing the work itself, is destructive. That I would come closer to agreeing with, but "destroys" is still too strong a word here.)

Perhaps what I most object to in that statement is the implication that this frees artists from having to explain their work. I know that it's cool to insist everything you need to know about a piece can be learned by looking at it (and clearly it had better "speak" for itself on some level), but if visual art is a form of communication (and interest in communication is why the artist bothers at all), then it's either snobbish or anti-social to value one form of communication to the exclusion of all others, which may be the message the artist intends to send, but in no way supports the argument that explanation destroys their work.

Finally, I firmly believe that any effort to fully explain a visual artwork in words will ultimately fail, but there's value in the effort of interpreting visual art. The assumption that all anyone needs to "get" a work is to look at it presumes the viewer has had the same life experiences as the artist; that the context in which a work was created somehow travels with it; that the artist is fully aware of the siginficance of each and every one of their own choices (not to mention what they mean to other people); that the viewer has seen other work by the artist and can connect the dots, so to speak; and a whole host of other bits of information that may help the viewer "get" it before they grow too frustrated to bother.

Now I know there are those out there with memories like elephants who will tempted to respond with two anecdotes I'm fond of sharing, but I don't feel they counter this position in any way. The dealer who told his client (who wanted to know why a Diebenkorn was so special), "Just look at it" was talking with someone who already had a good background on what Diebenkorn's work was about and really only wanted reassurance that this one was a good one to own (not trusting their own eye, which is what "Just look at it" was meant to encourage them to do). And the collector who finally saw, after years of staring at it, what Newman was doing in a painting wasn't going to see it until the events in his life opened his eyes, but would have missed the chance to own it (and missed that epiphany) had he not trusted the dealer who sold it to him, one assumes, through explanations.

And no, I'm not defending explanations because that's the tool of my personal trade. I just happen to believe that there are few things in this world more worth talking/writing about than Art and don't like to see those who work hard to do so disparaged. Explanation flatters art...what is destructive about that?

55 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems to me that content in art doesn't follow in a necessarily linear fashion. Explanation, though useful, can flatten what once had dimension and depth by ascribing characteristics that are based in a sense of heirarchy that actually might not be applicable. Of course, explanation is important but I do think it has the power to radically change an art work.

8/22/2006 10:19:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

explanation is important but I do think it has the power to radically change an art work.


Anonymous, can you provide an example that illustrates that?

8/22/2006 10:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

I am a bit uncomfortable giving explainations of my art for fear doing the equivilent sum up as saying "Citizen Kane" is about a sled. Got to go, otherwise would have more to say!

8/22/2006 10:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I meant was that explantion can function as a cartoon exaggerating certain aspects and relegating other aspects to a more marginal status. Maybe I was mistaken (or just being dramatic) to say that it radically changes the work. Perhaps, it is just incumbent upon an artist to speak about work in a way that doesn't shut it down.

8/22/2006 10:52:00 AM  
Anonymous jec said...

Interesting topic. I provide explanation for anyone who is interested in knowing what the work is about. If a viewer just wants to appreciate the work because it is visually pleasing, that's fine, but there is content behind the visual.

The resasons/method/concept behind my work is what guides me in the creative process. I write a statement that gives just enough info for those who might be interested. For those who really want the details, I'm happy to provide them. For those who want to just appreciate the work--you don't need to bother reading the statement, but you are missing what is key for me in making the work.

8/22/2006 10:53:00 AM  
Blogger William Knipscher said...

Great post Edward. I agree with you wholeheartedly that an artwork (or artist) should be able to stand up to explanations no matter how far away they are from the original intention. Art is not a static object, its more like a living thing that grows and changes through the years and mayhap mature in later years. I think great art forces the viewer to question the order of things, rather than art that proposes to have all the answers.

I wonder if what people are really objecting to is the vocabulary surrounding art? "Explain" has some negative connotations. One of the definitions of "explain" is to make plain, or take the mystery out of the object. Another definition for "explain" is define. I can understand how it might be hard to have your ouevre knocked down to a two line entry in a dictionary. But great art should be fluid enough that it can wend its way around all the definitions of what it is or is not.

8/22/2006 10:57:00 AM  
Anonymous ml said...

I view explanations the way I do any op-ed piece: I read them to find out a different argument/opinion. And those who don't like explanations don't have to read them.

The one concern I have is that we are a culture which values the verbal vastly more than the visual. From the guild system in the Renaissance through contemporary times, the word is a higher calling than the visual. But then I consider conceptual art our version of illustration. (Mind you this is not a negative in my world.)

8/22/2006 11:04:00 AM  
Anonymous h lowe said...

"And the collector who finally saw, after years of staring at it, what Newman was doing in a painting wasn't going to see it until the events in his life opened his eyes, but would have missed the chance to own it (and missed that epiphany) had he not trusted the dealer who sold it to him, one assumes, through explanations."

I am so glad dealers will do this.
That is gold.

For myself (from an artist's point of view) I find that there are times when I couldn't begin to explain what I am involved with---the work is grinding out and the direction is still a mystery. At other times I can pontificate for hours! ha!---so I suppose it is how we direct the ship from the crow's nest.

8/22/2006 11:31:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

...explanations are simply another form of expression.

I think that's key to it; an artist's explanation needs to be regarded critically as both exposition and expression. This goes for artist's statements as well.

I agree completely that an unwillingness to explain one's work sometimes suggests the artist's lack of engagement with the work. But also, haven't you known artists whose work was strong and well-founded conceptually, but they're just non-verbal?

I recall an interview of Basquiat in which he just stood and ate raw green beans while the interviewer asked him questions. Was he verbal in other interviews or contexts?

8/22/2006 11:36:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

"Explanation Destroys Art."

This is a great t-shirt. Not because it's entirely correct (which of course it isn't), but because it provokes a discussion of the relationship between the two.

I think there is a sense in which explanation destroys the experience of art, which one could argue destroys the art itself (not physically of course, but you know what I mean). One of the dangers of explanation is that it can encourage people to think that if they digest the explanation they've experienced the art. I see that all the time at museums, where visitors will stand there and read the wall text or the label, glance at the work and move on. What have they really gotten? It's not the explanation itself that's the problem, but perhaps the fact that its existence in the exhibition distracts viewers, who really do want to feel that they understand what they're seeing, from actually looking.

I have a policy regarding movie reviews. If there's a film I think there's any chance I might want to see, I avoid all reviews, hype, and discussions of it like the plague. Until I've seen the movie. Afterwards, once I've seen it myself, I'm often interested in finding out what other people, including the filmmakers, have to say about it. It's just that I don't want their explanations in my head when I first experience the movie, because they may get in the way of my own discoveries.

Often the explanation of what an artist is exploring (their process, their concerns) truly does enhance my experience of their work. But I want to see the work first. And if it's compelling I'll find out as much as I can about it, and then go back and see it again.

8/22/2006 11:46:00 AM  
Anonymous markdixon.ca said...

Any broad reaching statement like "Explanation Destroys Art" risks sounding narrow-minded but I can sympathise with the sentiment. There has been a tendency in the Visual arts to put a lot of emphasis and importance on the artist statement, or texts that accompany exhibitions or works. To me it becomes problemmatic when the actual work seems like an illustration of the text.

When I was doing my MFA, most of my colleagues would spend a larger amount of time in their seminar courses (i.e. theory) than in their studios. I found this ridiculous while at the same time, a sign of the times.

During my thesis examination (exhibition) my advisor asked me if I wanted to examine my artist statement (a requirement for graduating) - I told him "only if they felt it was important". I was glad when they tossed it aside and considered the actual work instead.

Good post.

Cheers from Montreal,
Mark

8/22/2006 11:57:00 AM  
Anonymous john hovig said...

My current work is more abstract than figural, and it uses some fine lines, so I get questions like, "What is it," or worse, "How long did it take?" When such questions arise, I prefer to engage the viewer and ask them what they see, and what they think, using their cues to discuss the art. This is not to be pedantic or clever, but to try to give them some control over the experience, as sincerely as I can.

After we talk about the 'big picture,' I can show them some details, real close-up, and explain the image and the creation process in more depth. I'm more than happy to discuss my work, even its technical aspects, and I accept the need to engage the public using verbal or written means, but I don't like the idea that art is some kind of test, where the viewer has to solve the puzzle to win the prize.

When I look at art, I'd rather be given the keys and a map than be driven around. I assume people go to museums and galleries because they want to explore, so I suspect the art-viewing process is more satisfying that way in general.

8/22/2006 12:14:00 PM  
Blogger kurt said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8/22/2006 12:28:00 PM  
Anonymous J.T. Kirkland said...

Edward says:

"Finally, I firmly believe that any effort to fully explain a visual artwork in words will ultimately fail, but there's value in the effort of interpreting visual art. The assumption that all anyone needs to "get" a work is to look at it presumes the viewer has had the same life experiences as the artist; that the context in which a work was created somehow travels with it; that the artist is fully aware of the siginficance of each and every one of their own choices (not to mention what they mean to other people); that the viewer has seen other work by the artist and can connect the dots, so to speak; and a whole host of other bits of information that may help the viewer "get" it before they grow too frustrated to bother."

I think there is a difference between interpretation and explanation. Interpretation can make use of what is there in the painting to try to figure it out. Explanation makes use of all those other things you mention here: the artist's choices, their previous work, walltext, other information, etc.

The problem that I choose to think about in my own work is, what would happen 100 years from now, if only one of my pieces existed. There was no biographical information available. No walltext. No clues of any sort. Does the piece then fall apart because the "support" no longer exists, or can it still be enjoyed or appreciated for what is there?

I think it's fine for artists to make art that requires explanation to fully get it. All artwork has useful background information that helps form a more full understanding of the work. But the decision of how much is required to "get it" is left to the artist and they have to live with that. If you make work that requires knowledge of your past 10 years of work, an understanding of socio-political issues in Rwanda, and the knowledge that fuscia is a spiritual color in your religion, don't be mad when a viewer doesn't give it the time you think it deserves.

That, or put your explanation in the piece itself somehow. You can't always have it both ways.

8/22/2006 12:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Bnon said...

The word "explanation" means "to make plain or understandable." I think this is where the hostility comes in. An explanation is necessarily reductive, and, in the wrong hands (or mouths), explanations oversimplify. An artist's statement is something that helps the viewer understand the work in question, but it's also a marketing tool--the viewer (now a collector or customer) should walk away with a handy, easily remembered idea, like a Hollywood movie tagline: "the artist uses the female form to explore the nature of desire and the physical properties of Styrofoam--it's Louise Bourgois meets Tara Donavan." So there are certainly objectionable explanations. More philosophically, it's absurd, as Edward points out, to think art is truly explainable: "Scientists Unlock Secret of the Large Glass: Duchamp Masterwork Is Key to Cold Fusion" is the kind of headline art history will never make. Truly deep and complex works will always be subject to interpretation. Kurt's right, interpretation enhances art.

However, there is one way that explanation does indeed destroy art. I think as an artist is creating new work and thinking new ideas, anything at all can be an influence (that's why artists are artists, we're synthesizers) and words can totally kill an idea, just the same way they can make an idea. To hear your work reduced to something you hate can cause you drop the whole thing and start on something else--and purchase one of those nifty tee shirts!

8/22/2006 12:56:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Interpretation Enhances It...

Kurt, that could go on the back. What do you all think? Black t-shirt, white text. Edward, does your gallery have a gift shop? :)

8/22/2006 12:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Deborah Fisher has written and excellent post on artists statements:
http://deborahfisher.blogspot.com/2006/07/artists-who-write.html

8/22/2006 01:04:00 PM  
Blogger Matt Niebuhr said...

Absolutely fascinating post and comments... I am confronted with the task of producing an "artist statement" for an upcoming event.... I think I'll title it: "A guideline to this Inquiry"..... What appeals to me when I read other artist's statements about their work is not coming away with a closed "this is how it is" conclusion, but rather, opening it up to a statement about "this is what I'm investigating" and "this is what motivates me" - I like reading statements that allow me to have a basis (perhaps framework is a better word) to engage in the art experience... Whether or not "Interpretation Enhances It" is better than "Explanation Destroys Art" doesn't seem to really matter in that context.

8/22/2006 02:29:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I think we're seeing the essence of what's wrong with that T-shirt message play itself out in the comments here. Folks (including myself) have translated "explanation" to mean 1) an artist statement; 2) interpretation; 3) details, real close-up, that explain the image and the creation process in more depth; 4) the subject that the work itself illustrates; 5) pre-emptive reviews; 6) a welcome sign of healthy engagment with one's work; 7) text similar to an op-ed piece (providing an alternative opinion); 8) the vocabulary surrounding art; and 9) any outside influence the artist synthesizes during the creation process. Perhaps visual artists should leave the writing of T-shirt messages to (more concise) professional writers. ;-)

I tend to think of "explanations" from my point of view (that of a gallerist who writes press releases and oftentimes recommendation letters) as essential, helpful, and plenty of other adjectives that connote something other than "destructive."

8/22/2006 02:44:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Also, no one has taken it upon themselves

;-(

to dispel/support my parallel (that, if true, the opposite would seem to have to be as well: a painting of a particular scene in a novel would destroy the prose). Is there something inherently different about text and images that makes this untrue?

8/22/2006 02:53:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

oh...is it that a painting of a scene in a novel could only "interpret" and not "explain" that scene?

Is that the case, though?

8/22/2006 02:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Ok, ok...again this is not going in the direction I would wish.

Let's go back to the beginning of Edward's comment about a brand of camera.

ANY artwork is the product of a process that can be thoroughly
"explained", though I much prefer the term "described". Once you have gathered the history of the making of an artwork, including the technology used and the chronology of events, than you should roughly get an idea about what the work is trying to do, and this, read me clearly, wrether the work is abstract or full of references. At some extent all arts are conceptual.


Where this discussion was leading was towards opposing the essence
of aesthetic experience against the intellectual potential of referents within an artwork.

As some say, they are any paths that can lead to a referent: it can be muted (a secret the artist almost keeps to himself or reserved to the initiated), it can be part of the artwork (that wall panel), it can be artist statement, it can be gallery press release and so on.

How these "instructions" to apprehend a work are forwarded, or not, is an important issue.

I agree that press release often seem to exist to sell a work much more than to make its comprehension fluid. We could gather a bunch of press release and decorticate their texts just for a laugh: there is a lot of abuse of intelligence going on at the mercy of language play, it's a wonder why those are always anonymous, since sometimes the only art that is truly happening is within the press release. Lol.

On the other hand some artist may overwhelm their artwork with complex referents. With conceptual art often the work will not function until you get the least of insight about intention. On other occasions the work is so complex and intellectually baroque that it remains to the advantage of the artist to stay mute because saying too much would only show how much they are confused.


I will conclude by admitting that sometimes the fact that I don't fully understand an artwork or am left frustrated by attempts to explain it will enhance my curiosity. Depends on what is on show but I'm pretty much a fan of intuition and blurry definitions.

I once asked the Brothers Quay if their films were highly symbolic and conceptual (every motifs attached to a precise purpose and meaning) or if they proceeded more from intuition and chance meetings
of whatever was on hand.

They told me it was much intuitive (though working sometimes around a perticular idea or context, they didn't feel comfortable with the idea of a liaison with symbolism).

I felt somehow very relieved to hear that. Like "total art" was a possibility again.


I don't find the least problematic to be curious asking about a brand of camera. I think artists have the responsability to know and respect the tools they have in hand and without which no art would be possible.


Cheers,

Cedric Caspesyan
centiment@hotmail.com

8/22/2006 03:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

a painting of a scene in a novel is usually called illustration,
so, I guess that is synonimous with demonstration.

I think it's interpretation when done by another artist and...err...explanation? when done by same artist. I mean, who is able to truly illustrate but the artist themselves? Hmm..I see this subject leading to an interesting curatorial proposal.

Cheers,

Cedric Caspesyan
centiment@hotmail.com

8/22/2006 03:39:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

ANY artwork is the product of a process that can be thoroughly
"explained", though I much prefer the term "described".


I think what we're running into here is the gap between describing a process (including technology, chronology, etc.) and explaining what the viewer is supposed to experience. The camera episode is about the former; the t-shirt could be construed to be about the latter (though it's left pretty ambiguous).

I agree w/ Todd and Edward that "what cameras you use?" is a pretty lame first question, not because it's asking for an explanation but because it seems trivial. It's like asking a painter what brand of paint they prefer. Might be something I'm marginally curious about, but it certainly wouldn't be the first thing I'd want to know.

Perhaps visual artists should leave the writing of T-shirt messages to (more concise) professional writers. ;-)

I think we have to thank the writer of this t-shirt for sparking a pretty interesting discussion. But even with Kurt's suggested subtitle, I won't wear it. Inspired by yesterday's topic, I've decided only to wear t-shirts bearing the logos of my corporate sponsors.

8/22/2006 04:41:00 PM  
Anonymous cnonymous said...

For many, words validate art.

8/22/2006 04:53:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

Also, no one has taken it upon themselves to dispel/support my parallel (that, if true, the opposite would seem to have to be as well: a painting of a particular scene in a novel would destroy the prose). Is there something inherently different about text and images that makes this untrue?

For me it's more like duelling formats. Good cinema makes demands on content that good writing does not.

For example, Phillip K. Dick's stories literally don't have an Act 3, so when you see Blade Runner or Minority Report, for example, Act 3 was written by someone else and shoe-horned in, with substantial changes to the previous two acts to make Act 3 work. The result is a movie replete with things that make no damned sense, although the original story was strong.

8/22/2006 05:24:00 PM  
Anonymous John Hovig said...

Edward,

It depends on the prose. Prose and imagery are different. They can accomplish different things in different ways. There's a book where the ethnicity of one of the main characters is revealed in only the final pages, at which point the meaning of the entire book changes. The cinematization of this book was not a great success. So yes, some prose can be ruined with imagery.

One can accomplish the same effect with an image by holding back the prose, i.e., the narrative. This is why much contemporary visual art has unfortunately turned into a puzzle, a whodunnit of imagery. There's a fine line between an image that makes you think and an image that makes you feel like you're doing homework or eating your vegetables. ("Oh no! It's an electric chair! Am I supposed to feel sorry for criminals? Am I supposed to hate the death penalty? Am I supposed to be glad we're cleaning up the streets? Is this an ad for some charity that the artist is supporting? Help! Am I going to be graded on a curve??")

Above I alluded to giving the viewer control. Questions like "what equipment do you use" are attempts to the mystery out of the artistic process. When the artist has done something mysterious to the general public, and caused a certain intellectual or emotional effect in the public, the view feels the artist has some control over them, however small. When the viewer can say "it was all done with mirrors," they can reclaim some of that control. Good art exceeds this type of intrusion, but no one should be surprised that viewers seek this information and artists shy away from revealing it.

(Not to mention that artists enjoy knowing what their "competitors" are up to....)

8/22/2006 06:17:00 PM  
Anonymous lou gagnon said...

Edward, perhaps you need to choose a word that better serves the spirit of your closing point.

Flattery- Excessive or insincere praise, especially given to further ones own interests. Middle English: from Old French “Flater” meaning ‘stroke, flatter.’

8/22/2006 09:35:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Edward, perhaps you need to choose a word that better serves the spirit of your closing point.

That's a cute spin Lou, but I'm not sure the interests of those who believe in explantions are always unaligned with those who make art.

I'm not opposed to the idea that explanations serve folks other than the artist as much as I am the notion that art's so fragile an attempt to describe it in words could destroy it.

8/22/2006 09:51:00 PM  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thiss is a smart, provocative post and also a nice string of thoughtful comments. I don't really have anything to add. But I went to the inital interview and found that the question noted here has some stiff competition for most inane. Here is another: "3. What do you actually like about photography?" And another: "9. How did you cultivate your photographic/artistic sensibility?"

8/22/2006 10:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Clement Greenberg said...

Explanation flattens art.

8/23/2006 01:50:00 AM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

There's a difference between explaining art and any of the following:

providing context, telling the story of its making, talking about the history of the artist, talking about what the artist was thinking about, making comparisons between that artist and other works or artists, free-associating about the imagery, usw.

The problem with the word explain is that it implies reduction and a sense of authority. This = right and wrong, and that does "kill" art.

Art is not linear. My "explanation" is not going to be the same as yours. And this is just my opinion, but art is fundamentally about not knowing--about discovery. So to have it explained by anyone inserts this figure of authority, and that authority truncates exploration, or discourse.

Is the argument semantic like that?

8/23/2006 07:22:00 AM  
Blogger kurt said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8/23/2006 07:30:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

This = right and wrong, and that does "kill" art.

Can you provide an examaple?

8/23/2006 08:04:00 AM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Example:

I went with a bunch of art appreciation students to see the Tim Hawkinson show at the Whitney a couple of years ago.

About half of them followed around a docent-led tour that explained each piece. Half walked around with me or wandered around alone. Everyone wrote a paper.

With very few exceptions, docent-tour papers were lackluster and more than that, they all assigned exactly the same meaning--the meaning they were delivered--to the art. I asked specific questions about what the formal qualities of TH's work did to create a meaning, and they perceived that the docent had told them the "right" answers to these questions.

I didn't tell students what to think of TH's work, and the students who walked around alone didn't get any verbal extras, and these papers reflected a different problem-solving process. They free-associated, culled from their own histories and experience, actually looked at the work for themselves... They all had very different answers to the questions, and they were all "right". And their observations and ideas were comparatively rich and well thought out.

It was obvious from the quality of the papers, and the quality of the discussion after the papers were returned, that these students who were not given the right answer had more fun, were more engaged in the work, had more of a personal stake. OTOH, the students who took the tour had a really hard time engaging the work personally, did not want to leave behind what the docent said, and were generally more hard-headed because they felt that they had the right answer.

This is hardly scientific, but it leads me to believe that "knowing" the "right answer" about art from an "authority figure" like a docent is not conducive to developing a personal relationship to the work. I think that this is different from providing information, particularly in a questioning context. I boned up on Hawkinson and told my students a lot of facts about how he makes stuff, and we all watched an Art:21 episode with him, so there was lots of context. The context or factual information was important--it helped deepen the "second group's" arguments and separated fluffy sentimentalism from sharp, precise meaning.

Hope this makes sense.

8/23/2006 08:38:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Thanks Fisher6000.

That's an excellent example of how explanation can affect the experience of art, but I'm still not convinced it impacted the art or artmaking* in anyway, which is what "explanation destroys art" implies to me (and yes, we're back at the old question of whether art is an object or an experience, with me on the "object" side). The fact that the other half of your students left with a rich experience indicates the art itself was in no way lessened by the docent's unengaging presentation.

The students who toured with you did discuss and, I assume, explain their take on TH's work later in class, so it's not like their explanations are a problem here. The problem seems to have been the authority figure explanation, which led most of the other half (but you indicate not all) to go lazy, which may reflect more about the students who dropped the ball than anything else.

And students are a specific subsection of the art viewing public. Despite what seems a more open approach in your class, they are encouraged most everywhere else to regurgitate the "right" answer, so I wouldn't consider their response indicative of a universal response to a docent's tour. The fact that they became defensive is interesting, but....

*I guess I'm stuck on this because I can't see how what bnon says is true:

However, there is one way that explanation does indeed destroy art. I think as an artist is creating new work and thinking new ideas, anything at all can be an influence (that's why artists are artists, we're synthesizers) and words can totally kill an idea

The implication that artmaking is some fragile process that outside influence can derail doesn't make sense to me...but then I don't make art, so...

8/23/2006 08:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Bnon said...

God. You have no idea! It's not a myth that artists (at least this one) are sensitive. My point was that I think most artists have very sharp antennas that pick up all kinds of crap--important stuff like other artists' investigations, ideas from literature and philosophy and science, right down to a shallow, catty comment overheard at an opening. ("David Salle already did this 20 years ago." "You're kidding me. Blue?" It's these little meaningless snipes that can send an artist into a funk. Any time some one hints my work is too much like someone else's, I freak. Sometimes I change directions; sometimes I suspect that's ill-advised. I think this is one practical reason artists are suspicious of words.

8/23/2006 09:27:00 AM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Hey Edward,
I see what you are saying. I have actually written two posts about this in relationship to my own artmaking, about the artist's statement and artists who write. I know you have written above that you are not talking about statements, but I do think this is relevant because the statement is an explanatory format, with explanatory expectations. So bear with me.

I don't think words kill art--I write all the time and know too many other artists who need to write about how they make their own work and the context they work in. I do think there is a difference between explaining one's work and providing context or information.

And I have to admit that I do not have balls of steel on this issue. I admit that I have been in my studio, confused about what on earth mess I have gotten myself into, and made stupid choices because they would sound good in an artist's statement. Or to put it another way, I have forced work to a conclusion too soon because I wanted to be able to say what it is "about".

I don't think this is the same as writing about one's work. While I don't blame any artist who is not verbally inclined, I do think that being able to talk about one's work and what is happening with it is extremely important to me. I write about my own work a LOT. But I would rather write as an artist--in an exploratory way that does not encompass or explain--and not as an authority (who delivers the totality of a nonverbal relationship in a verbal format).

IMO, this whole argument is semantic. Words are not the devil, and the greatest fun of art is the joy of translating a nonverbal experience or object (I don't pick a side on this one) into words--or creating meaning. That is what art is for, IMO, on a fundamental level.

But the word explain connotes a specific point of view: I know what is happening here, and you don't, and I will explain it to you. To explain is to be authoritative, and I am an idealist but I would prefer an art world in which there was no authority because then we would all be forced to do the hard work of figuring out what we like and why by looking and thinking.

This is not ungenerous or elitist or about withholding information. Information, context, what other people think of the work--this is all thickening the stew. It's incredibly important, and IMO it's pretty silly for an artist to get all up in arms about having to divulge context, talk about the work, or accept that other people are looking and talking.

I just hate the authority angle. Not because I am some feelgoody populist, but because every single time I think I am an authority in my studio I make something lame. Because authority is comforting, and I do my best work when I reach for what is uncomfortable and follow through completely on that reach.

8/23/2006 09:32:00 AM  
Blogger onesock said...

So many intelligent things have been mentioned here about the enhancement or diminishing of the experience of art with statements. And I agree with the distinctions made between the authoritaive, didactic text or lectures and the simple guides or entyways into a work.

But I am intrigued by the way in which language can influence the artist (touched on breifly in this discussion). It reminds me of something Mike Kelly once mentioned about his (perhaps) most famous work, the stuffed toys and blankets work. If you read any explanatory text on this work it probably mentions child abuse or abandonment, etc. According to the artist, these were not what he originally intended the work to evoke, but one he read these descriptions he accepted and adopted that sort of discourse surrounding the pieces.

Now he has also stated firmly that other language surrounding other work is off the mark. And Kelly has been incredibly active in "explaning" the work and controlling the discourse about it. But I think it is interesting that in at least one instance he allowed outside influences to determine meaning (which is usually the case no?)and affect how HE saw the work.

In my circumstance as an artist, I am almost completely devoid of any outside influence or feedback. This can be liberating in the sense that it forces me to trust my own mind and follow my own instincts without the expectation of its reception. I certainly care about its reception, and sometimes need outside feedback to get things going to point to other directions or butress myself when following shaky ground. It can be stiffling when there is no feedback. So perhaps when an artist is in an "odd-duck" situation where any explanation of the work mostly serves the purpose of convincing, it is better to not wholly engage in the community because you are always pushing up against something that is trying to invalidate what you do, or subtly pressure you to do something else.

8/23/2006 10:54:00 AM  
Blogger William Knipscher said...

Words are not necessarily stronger, although I think people do give them a lot of weight because words are how we communicate in our daily lives. It is our natural form of communication, not open to much interpretation, so words can change our experience of visual art but not destroy it. Destruction implies that the work of art would no longer exist.

What about writers? Aren't they just as prone to overreact to criticism ? Maybe we need to make a distinction between the artwork and the artist's ego?

8/23/2006 11:00:00 AM  
Blogger onesock said...

Or I should say, the goal of an artist is to find that community that provides jsust the right balance of acceptance and resistance to keep things going (not in a vacuum). SO the "eplanation" (for lack of another word) serves as an extra entryway into that community, communicating to others "this is what I believe" (to stael an NPR quote)

Of course I am focusing on how the text supports and affects (works for) the artist rather than the viewer.

8/23/2006 11:04:00 AM  
Anonymous ml said...

What I would find interesting is to hear the music the artist was listening to while creating the work as I view the artwork. This would probably be equally revelatory to the art as any words.

8/23/2006 11:33:00 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

explanation destroys ambiguity, ambiguity is the spice of art, the heady scent that keeps you tracking.

The mystery almost always turns out to be more interesting than the answer, after the answer, we go home.

8/23/2006 12:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am the individual who posted the "Explanation Destroys Art" comment on GalleryHopper.

I'm surprised and pleased to see this discussion taking place. As I said in my original comment, "This statement may sound extreme. But there is some trut to the statement." And as many others have commented here, there is a point to be made, although not to be taken too literally. There is a thought to be had, a consideration to be made.

I originally planned to add that art, when experienced, is an exchange. I believe wholeheartedly in the pure, individual, personal interpretation of art, with little to no outside influence or explanation. I believe this to be art in its purest form.

It would be ideal if all art was encountered and experienced in this way, the experience influenced only by what each of us holds inside ourselves. Whether or not more is learned about the art and artist, either of our own accord or someone else's interpretation after the fact is, in my opinion, a secondary consideration.

8/23/2006 01:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Tim - Well said! (explanation destroys ambiguity, ambiguity is the spice of art, the heady scent that keeps you tracking.)

8/23/2006 02:06:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

explanation destroys ambiguity, ambiguity is the spice of art, the heady scent that keeps you tracking.

While I see how that applies in some instances, I can't let that pass as if an absolute. Ambiguity is essential to some artists' processes, but not all. And I can't see where one is any better than the other judging by the only measure that matters: the final work.

8/23/2006 03:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

David:
>>>It's like asking a painter what brand of paint they prefer. Might be something I'm marginally curious about, but it certainly

>>>>wouldn't be the first thing I'd want to know.


Actually I've talked with painters that claim the brand of paint is extremely important and that most paint tubes suck. Some

have their paint made. In the age of post-conceptualism every provenances of your material is at stake. The tableau is not

merely a tableau anymore, it's an object filled with origins, causes and consequences.


cnonymous
>>>For many, words validate art.


Yes well the danger is to fall into complete dellusion that we love a work because we are able
to talk about it so well. I mean, Guido Of Arezzo dissected the musical scale
a millenary ago but sometimes it seems we are doing this with art only since 50 years.



>>>a painting of a particular scene in a novel would destroy the prose

That's because art is always a failure when imagination is always much better.

If we stop comparing with imagination, we can come to reason why or why not
a painting supports, accompanies, flatters, a novel.


Edward
>>>>to describe it in words could destroy it.


That's Orpheus Syndrome. You know sometimes you discover how an artist work. You've followed them,
scrutinized everything they did step by step, from research to finalization, and yet...Yet sometimes
even though you came to a close understanding of how an artist works it is better not to tell them.
Some artists are great simply because they don't realize how they proceed, or try to never think about it.
It's just like that. That doesn't mean understanding how the art works will destroy it, we should be able to
differentiate the qualities of tricks and illusions in our evaluation.

It's not because I can see the ceiling of Pirates Of The Caribbean at Walt Disney World that I'm unable to enjoy the ride.



Deborah:
>>>>There's a difference between explaining art and any of the following:
>>>providing context, telling the story of its making.....


Hmm...I'm sorry to disagree. Any artwork is anthropologic. What the artist or curator explains about the intentions of an

artwork will always remain only a part of the theorem for me. If I want to evaluate a work I need to look at how form originated.

Sometimes that study can lead to ethical or philosophical conflicts that serve criticism really well. You need to compare

intention with "how it's being forwarded", that's really how you can evaluate the success of an art piece. This said..."providing

context" can mean lots of things. It's great to have a sense of where the artist is coming from, but you don't always need to

have a clear understanding of broader historical context to understand the work. Let's just say that studying the means and

technologies used by an artist will often reveal a lot about context in itself.




Edward
>>>>This = right and wrong, and that does "kill" art.
>>>Can you provide an examaple?



Can I?

Sentimentalism is wrong and distanciation is cool so
Tchaikovsky must suck and it's music for children that you
you should throw out the window by 16.



Deborah:
>>>>Hope this makes sense.


Fantastic example! Wow!

I think this was also an opportunity for you because the next time
you can warn students about that. There must be a way to warn people
about these effects.

Hawkinson's art is often pretty self-explanative
so that was an easy trap. Ironically is art often
consists of traps and trompe-l'oeils.



Edward:
>>>The fact that the other half of your students left with a rich experience indicates the art itself was in no way lessened by the

>>>>docent's unengaging presentation.


This is a clear example of an art which is presented through the lense of process.
Most of the time I think discussing about Hawkinson will imply describing the methods he
used to do a work. I totally encourage that lecture as it is often quite interesting.
The danger comes when we are unable to differentiate a great piece from Hawkinson
from one that is merely a fun pun, all this because we are subjugued by the methods
of working of an artist. Ahhh the wonders of impertinence...



Edward
>>>>The implication that artmaking is some fragile process that outside influence can derail doesn't make sense to me..


No, but the danger with words is when they are "non-diegetic" to the artwork (gosh forgive this borrowing of a cinema term,
for lack of a better term), when they are applicated to the work in statement or press release but are not intrinsically part of the work. Than outside influences and exaggerated comparisons can be totally derailing to artmaking. What a curator (or decent) assumes about a work is sometimes quite off the track and it becomes a danger when in institutions some
art is presented under such funhouse-mirror deforming appreciations.


Deborah
>>>> I would prefer an art world in which there was no authority

Quote of the month!

That's a damn battle when you don't have a phd in philosophy or litterature.


Onesock:
>>>>outside influences to determine meaning (which is usually the case no?)


Yes, I think that consensus can overpower intention in matters of interpretation.
The problem is that most art never reach consensus before opinion is being manipulated
by people hired to "defend" the artwork or artist (some artists are specifically controlling
about these aspects as you mentioned).


Also it remains to questions wrether meaning in art is a necessity or reductive.
I think that was part of the problem exposed here. I will repeat myself but I
think meaning occurs in the process (including research, emotional crisis, history of artmaking, etc),
not in how you explain a work (that would be when the external bias of words can come into conflict).


Cheers,

Cedric Caspesyan
centiment@hotmail.com

8/23/2006 03:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

oops..."subjugued" is no english word, right?

it's subjugated. (+ many typos as usual)

Cedric

8/23/2006 03:43:00 PM  
Anonymous h lowe said...

Clement Greenberg is right: explanation flattens art.
On the other hand, explication exalts and extends it.
A restaurant critic who explains a dinner will speak of sociology, history, economics and what have you. But the subject is gastronomy, and this requires explication to make the banquet complete. Can I enjoy the meal without explication? Probably, but some things are an acquired taste.

8/23/2006 05:03:00 PM  
Blogger David Coffin said...

Excellent post, fascinating discussion; thanks!

I first encountered this idea (“Never explain!”) as a sort of insider/elitist, mentor-to-apprentice directive about not pulling the curtain back to reveal to the hoi polloi the man behind the illusion, the machinery behind the magic. I experienced it at the time as a rebuke to my naiveté, a kind of intentionally obscure explanation of charisma from those with it to those who would never have any. It didn’t at all suit my egalitarian sense of life as I thought us 60’s progressives were trying to recraft it, but it did resonate with my observations about how effortlessly almost any art seemed to divide the audience into those who got it, and those who were clueless.

So, yet another facet of the issue, one that seems both smarmy and inevitable: Art as Showmanship.
Count me out of that, says my rational mind (or is that my conscience?). But I still resist “explaining” my own work. It feels like moving in the wrong direction compared to actually making it, both because of how much I relish the non-verbal nature of the process, and because of how conscious I am that I’m trying to create something that requires no explanation... I don’t want to break my own spell, let alone interfere with the chance of actually casting one.

But this has nothing much to do with what anyone else might say or write about my work, or what I might say about anyone else's. This seems a totally parallel activity, equally able to justify itself or not, and equally to be clamoring for attention. It’s a new creation and thus always chiefly about its creator, and never actually an explanation of the work that is supposed to be the pretext for it. Comprehensive “explanations,” per se, seem quite impossible to me, from anyone, a fact worth acknowledging, no matter how rarely:)

8/23/2006 05:16:00 PM  
Anonymous lou gagnon said...

That's a cute spin

Where is the spin? I referenced Oxford, Cambridge & Webster. Each lead with “Flattery” as excessive, insincere & self serving.

Forgive me if I missed someone, Cedric’s is the only post that mentions context. Most think first of external context, those elements we agree already exist and hold value, like history, style or tradition (similar to the way Oxford, Cambridge and Webster share a common definition for a word.)

Internal context is the fuel of creativity. It is powered by those elements inside an individual that are the foundation of a unique perspective (similar to the way Shakespeare created or derived words to augment his quality of experience and incorporated them into his work.) This internal context is fragile when set aside the mass of external context. Think about your average observant middle school kid and the onslaught of mass media/advertising.

Many artists I know are so secure in what they're doing that the oddest interpretation of their work imaginable seems to only amuse them.

That an artist is amused by odd interpretations does not address explanations. It suggests that the artist has made the Darwinian cut and trusts/values her/his internal context.

What would the wall text for Van Gogh said about him in his time? What gallery owner/director would have the wherewithal to equip Van Gogh’s influence on artists of the future. His influence was established by artist who ignored his lack of “external” contribution an digested him on their own terms.

8/23/2006 08:24:00 PM  
Anonymous monogamous said...

I love explanation when it's done in an impartial context by an intelligent person, eg. academic criticism about an artist who is no longer living.

But most explanation is not impartial. Curators or artists have an agenda: to inflate the quality of the work. To me, these type of texts have an over-reaching or even grandiose quality.

When the waiter at an Italian restaurant supplies some luscious adjectives to describe some overpriced swill, is he "providing a context to enhance your experience", or is he attempting to create your experience via the power of persuasion?

The work can be trusted. Words are more difficult to trust.

8/23/2006 10:09:00 PM  
Blogger julian said...

I recently saw an interview with Henry Moore where he said that he thinks it is important that artists don't talk too much about their work as it may lead to future work being 'just' a fulfillment of concepts...

8/24/2006 02:52:00 PM  
Blogger John Morris said...

Wow, Ed this turned into a great post in that it was open ended enough to really drive discussion. I haven't read every comment, but I will because there seems to be a lot of great stuff being said.

Fisher's story about the docent brought out one of the big problem's that can happen when a lot of "cliff notes are provided" and i think that effect is the main thing that seems to bug people about this issue. You get the feeling in a lot of work that the explanation is meant to intimidate the viewer and forstall an honest response to the work itself. This is also very much the opinion I have of artist's bio's, which often seem to scream-- MOMA bought it and I went to Yale, so you must like this. ( or you are dumb )

The whole issue also links to the question of giving titles to works which I always find hard.

8/27/2006 01:25:00 PM  
Anonymous castlemarci said...

If more of the population would be open to feeling the moment,and keep our mouths and minds silent. we could possibility open a realm into a balance of understanding, our time, together.Ultimatly, it doesnt matter how many words your given and how much information you can retain..............when your dead no one can ask you for an statement.But those who expereance,Are brave to be open,and feel , will remember the feelings you shared.
Is there any one who could colapse an internal universe of emmotion into letters?. ,

8/28/2006 10:54:00 AM  

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