Friday, January 05, 2007

Art About Art

A wonderfully observant article by Roberta Smith in today's NYT had me see-sawing on a finer point in my general argument on "art about art." In what I don't mind calling one of the most delightful pieces on viewing art I've read in a while, Smith describes a wide selection of works at the Met depicting artists in the process (or artists "caught in the act" as the article's headline puts it) of making their work, inspired by noticing that a canvas by Alfred Stevens wasn't three women having tea, but rather three women engaged in a studio visit:

If not entirely enthralled by the fussy realism of the painting — which hangs in the long, wide thoroughfare that leads past the 19th-Century Paintings and Sculpture Galleries — I became fascinated with its story line and the spell it cast.

I began to wonder what else the Met might have on view in the way of images of artists or artisans at work. Aided by suggestions from several Met curators, I set forth under crowded holiday conditions a few days before New Year’s Eve, combing the collection for moments of self-disclosure, self-reference and self-celebration.


The notion of the artist as a worthy subject for art became especially prominent in the West in the 17th century and was further bolstered by the onset of Romanticism in the first half of the 19th. So I wasn’t surprised that most, but happily not all, of the working artists I came across at the Met were in works made in Europe or the United States after 1750.

The article is a wonderful virtual tour through the museum, in addition to an insightful history lesson (one of the notes Smith makes that captured my imagination is how artists use mirrors to "circles behind us and puts us in the picture, a frequent hook in images of artists at work"), and it went a long way toward blunting the pressure I've been feeling (in part due to commentary on this very blog) to reconsider how much I love art about art.

Of course, as soon as I thought, "A-ha! Vindication," it did occur to me that art about artmaking isn't the same as art about art exactly, but I wonder whether that's a distinction with no signficant difference (i.e., as Smith notes by including a description of a Red Grooms piece showing two Ab-Ex masters sitting in Washington Square park, "perhaps, ... for some artists, not working is just a less productive, more tormented form of working" and so using an artist as subject in any way, whether considering process or biography or what-have-you, is to choose artmaking as subject).

So if there's no meaningful difference between "art" and "artmaking" as subject, and, as Smith demonstrates with the inclusion in her essay of wall paintings in a tomb at Thebes showing ancient Egyptian artists working [seen above], if art as subject is anything but new, isn't what folks are objecting to with regard to "too much art about art" today possibly misplaced blame for what they see as lack of spiritual or intellectual reward in other aspects of contemporary life?

I mean, I suspect part of why I love art about art is an insider's thrill at "getting it," but even after I had started to consider relegating my love for it to the "guilty pleasure" category, I kept finding myself being enthralled by this or that newly discovered piece with art as subject. Further, I began to suspect that what drew me to visual art as my primary interest in life might be that its parts/tools/stuff (i.e., aesthetics, formalism, visual, concepts, etc.) are simply how I see/interact with the world...they're the language that I understand. Moreover, for me, other potential paths toward spiritual or intellectual reward are too clumsy...make me too self-conscious...aren't quite "me."

But why, one might still ask, are the workings of that "stuff" equally important to me.

As I think about that, I recall the line Hillel reportedly used to explain the Torah: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it!"

Without being sacrilegious or elevating art to the status/role of religion, for me, all the commentary about artmaking or art itself is so very valuable because it continually reinforces what art is to me: another important life lesson ("Look, really look, and then connect.") That's the whole of it. But I see the value in studying the rest.

I don't expect folks who are left cold by art about art to change their opinion just because I stumbled upon this morsel of vindication. It might be a subject only some folks respond to, and even for some of its advocates, it might have its limits, but I feel a bit better about my passion for it and for not having gone so far as to label it a "guilty pleasure" before I read Smith's fine article.


Anonymous mark "found the other sock" creegan said...

I have been thinking about this subject for a good while because so much of my art is about art. I have been criticized for this by some really intelligent people so I have been seriously reflecting on this and basically tell myself that I cant help but make art about art at this point.

One comment I took to heart came (interestingly) from Jerry Saltz. I was about a week or two out of grad school, feeling that odd mix of confidence slash what-the-heck-do-i-do-now sort of attitude so I thought Id send an email to Jerry saltz asking him to critique my work (not in an article just for me via email). Geez, I am almost embarrassed to say that i did such a rude thing! Anyway, he graciously responded and was quite nice. His basic review was that he enjoyed the pieces that werent "too much art about art". That was the first time I had ever been presented with that critique so at first it was shocking.

Another artist who I found via the web and whose work I greatlly respect also made the comment to me that I shouldnt make work that points to the fact that I am an artist. He said he already knows that I am an artist so I should shy away from this sort of navel gazing.

I fully respect these opinions and (continuing the same sort of reaction I had to critiques in grad school) I reflected on this for a long time and basically my sentiment lies close to what ed said here:
Moreover, for me, other potential paths toward spiritual or intellectual reward are too clumsy...make me too self-conscious...aren't quite "me."

In school I came upon the use of art related materials very gradually. In my mind (and how i presented it to my professors) this was an intellecual exercise in deconstruction. Also it was an effort to use what was around me at the time. I was an artist, my wife taught elementary school art, I worked part time as a museum preparator, so the objects I used came from these various contexts. My idea was/is to put these grungy things (used watercolors, used paint roller thingies, art magazines, etc.) into the high art context of minimalist displays in a gallery or museum.

Lately, I have been thinking about this on emotional (less intellectual) terms. That perhaps its not about art but art I am after but about the social and emotional associations surrounding art. By mixing different art "worlds" and elevating the low and kitchy art stuff (i have a stack of Watlter Foster books I have been working with for example)I am really just presenting my own extremme love/hate relationship to "Art".

In a way, my move toward this thinking is also my attempt to avoid becoming too clever or inside-jokey about it. We all used watercolor sets as children, we all remember how it felt, how confident we were with them, etc. So I hope I touch on some semi-universals here(and some durn FEELINGS!) Some of my stuff is inside-jokey but those are things that I say "I just cant resist!"

Ed, I was wondering if you have ever had this conversation with Joe Fig? Id be interested in his thoughts on this topic.

1/05/2007 10:46:00 AM  
Anonymous mark creegan said...

oh and Jennifer Dalton! I wonder about her thoughts too.

1/05/2007 10:50:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Great comment Mark!

Joe and I have talked about this, but I don't want to discuss it here in any detail without his consent. I will note that Joe began looking at other artists' processes after reaching a bit of a directionless period in his own studio practice. If you've never seen Joe's paintings, you may not realize he can paint essentially anything in virtually any style (and his more realistic paintings are often mistaken for photographs). He began looking to other painters and how their physical surroundings impacted their process in search of challenges for himself.

Joe has a rich past of painting (and printmaking) subjects other than other artists though, so this series is not reflective of a life-long project focused on art about art, but I totally understand artists who do find enough to mine in art itself to capture their imagination totally.

No one artist can be all things to all people. Making the work that you're compelled to make is better than trying to make work to please others, always.

1/05/2007 11:02:00 AM  
Blogger kurt said...

I'm not sure where the line is (or exactly what the "art about art" objection is) but I think there's a difference between art about the creative process, and art about the "art world."

1/05/2007 11:13:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I agree Kurt, there is a difference, but that "line" is so hard to pinpoint that it might be pointless to do so.

I also realize that there's a difference between an artist who makes one work about art or artmaking and those who only make work about art and artmaking, specialization becomes more a part of the human condition, I'm not sure that difference is as significant as it used to be either.

1/05/2007 11:24:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

It's all auto-bio to me (all about me) no matter the subject. Mostly my view/effect of the world from a domestic setting. It's interesting to hear of such strong opinions of preference. Recently heard a woman say "I just hate figuative art" :). Didn't seem like a happy person.

1/05/2007 11:57:00 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

Art about art is currently unfashionable because it was a central tenet of Modernism, and we are in the reactive phase. Like architectural styles that go through a period of disfavor following the height of fashionability to later re-emerge as 'classic' or 'standard' forms, Modernism seems dowdy and tired at the moment, if not downright corrupt.

But 'Reflection' and 'speculation' both essentially mean, at their etymological root, looking in the mirror. Viewed at that level these are qualities we cherish in art and people. Reflection leads to understanding oneself and becoming a deeper person. Speculation leads to new ideas and solutions. 'Navel-gazing' is the corrupt version. Anything is embarassing or useless if done badly.

We should celebrate the good work and not condemn an entire field of inquiry based on the failures, which are always in the majority after all. To say, "This work is bad because it is reflective" doesn't make a lot of sense. The work is bad because the work is bad. Maybe the criticism comes down to saying, "This work fails because it leans too heavily on the conventions of a previous generation." In other words, it is not reflective or speculative enough.

The idea that art should be about something outside of itself is fast becoming a corrupt and ossified commandment, taught and repeated as if it requires no explanation. It is reactive and scolding and doesn't stand up to observation or analysis.

I have a lot more to say about this . . .

1/05/2007 12:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Long Island CIty Painter said...

When I was in art school and I first encountered art about art, I thought that it was nothing but contrived & insiderish, or overly academic. 12 years later -having spent a large part of those years looking at and making art - art is such a part of my life that art about art is something I really relate to. Art is made by artists whose life is about art - so art about art makes sense. That said, most people's lives are not about art, and if you look at other mediums you don't find the same thing - music about the music industry is not a real hot seller. Art about art is enabled by the smallness of the artworld and how large a part it plays in people's identities, eg being an art collector is not casual - it is likely to be a large part of a collector's identiity, while many people consume books and music without it being a main focus of their lives.

1/05/2007 12:44:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

What about "Smoke on the Water" ;-?

We all came out to montreux
On the lake geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didnt have much time
Frank zappa and the mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground
Smoke on the water, fire in the sky

1/05/2007 12:53:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

"American Pie" and "Killing Me Softly" are music about music, as well...others?

And Television about Television, and movies about that industry are not exactly rare either.

1/05/2007 02:12:00 PM  
Anonymous mark creegan said...

one of my favorite bands, Mates of State, often make witty meta-references such as "You should surely find this pleasing to your ears" or "oooo, im tired of singing".

Dont forget blogs about blogs, one of which Mr Gusky has.

1/05/2007 02:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is plenty of popular art out there to fit ordinary popular taste just as there are those analogous genres of popular music, theater, etc. Advertising, illustration, design, and so much more fits into this category.
Aren't we talking about the narrow, exclusive category of contemporary art, which certainly does have parallels in contemporary music, dance, and everything else-- and the audiences for these are just as tiny and elite and adoring if not more than they are for cutting edge contemporary fine arts. There's nothing wrong with these artists or artlovers!
Art about art is incredibly interesting, including the modernist kind, because those ideas are incredibly interesting, just as the musics of Harry Partch or Steve Reich (who are pretty institutionalized) get to be incredibly interesting if you know a little bit. It's fun and amazing to find complex, multireferential things you will never get to the bottom of, which you have to do some homework for, which you can eventually feel part of the dialogue of, which will keep you interested for a lifetime.

1/05/2007 02:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Juryduty said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't all culture *about* culture?

Doesn't all communication and interaction require a degree of fluency in the medium in which it occurs? And the greater the fluency the greater the possibility for communication?

Isn't all culture language?

Isn't all language form?

Take the Blues for example - isn't part of the enjoyment of listening to it the recognition of its reference to its own tradition? The seventh son of the seventh son, etc.?

Isn't all language tradition?

Isn't all culture, all language, all form, all tradition - and all biology - built on, and with, that which preceded it?

If art wasn't always at some level *about* art, you couldn't even recognize it as art.

1/05/2007 03:17:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

If art wasn't always at some level *about* art, you couldn't even recognize it as art.

Interesting suggestion, juryduty...I'll have to mull that over some more. Initially, though, I do know that some art, although perhaps in the way you note being about "art" is also about love, or war, or what-have-you. So if your premise is true, then perhaps folks don't mean they dislike art about art, but rather that they dislike art that's not also about something else....

1/05/2007 04:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

The problem here is that "about" is a vague catchall variously meaning "referencing," "depicting," "has content about," "relating to," and probably a few others. Therefore discussions about what art is "about" head towards an entropic state in which it ends up being "about" everything.

Art that depicts artists at work are of particular importance to people close to the topic, much in the same way that a candy aficionado might enjoy getting a tour of the Hershey plant in Pennsylvania. The Portland Museum of Art has a Winslow Homer room with one of the painter's old watercolor sets in a vitrine, and I love seeing stuff like that. It's a pleasure, and see no need to characterize it as a guilty one.

1/05/2007 05:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Juryduty said...

but rather that they dislike art that's not also about something else....

Exactly. And then we step into a conversation about taste and accessibility ...

1/05/2007 07:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

your fawningly verbose love letter to roberta smith is embarrassing for you. her 'fine' article. her 'wonderfully observant' article.
try to be less obvious, and maybe she'll review one of your artists one day.

1/05/2007 10:10:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


Smith has reviewed one of my artists, and if you search the blog, you'll find criticisms of her articles here as well (see here, for example). I loved the piece she wrote today. I'll call 'em as I see 'em, regardless of how that strikes you, m'kay?

1/05/2007 11:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

please don't sick your boyfriend on me like you did last time i dared to criticize your blog. it hurt, the sincerity of it all, the laughter and the tears ruined my watercolour painting.

1/06/2007 12:56:00 AM  
Anonymous juryduty said...

Anon, you're kinda hostile for a friday night.

Sleeping alone?

1/06/2007 01:47:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I thought you were the same anonymous.

The last time around you suggested this blog shouldn't exist. You realize, don't you, that you can for all intents and purposes accomplish that goal by simply not navigating here? Why not give that a try?

1/06/2007 10:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Art about art.
Art: is to imitate,
supplement, alter
and counteract the
works of nature....
and beauty their.
Are you suggesting,
art about art being?
imatate about imitating?
supplement about imitating?
I personally paint,
alter about altering, or
maybe alter about imatating.
That would be a vibro-story
thing, afeeling woven in, a
confession? A dream
warped in time traveling
momentum. Stuff, accumulating
synchronistic rhythm in light
patterns, set to complement
your intellect esthetic,
be kind, moral.
Art about art, all wayz! Forevermore.

1/06/2007 10:35:00 AM  
Anonymous marci said...

Tech difficulty makes me anon,
I am not 'that sad anon"
by choice. Marci

1/06/2007 10:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Hey. My answer's to today's topic:

(or someone else's answer)



Cedric Caspesyan

1/06/2007 01:25:00 PM  
Anonymous William said...


I hope art about art stays 'unfashionable' forever, it's doing wonders for my art about art. I'd hate to see it become fashionable, then I'd have to stop.

And the poor miserable soul who obviously can't stand Ed's blog, you are in my next drawing. "The Anonymous Blogger" Send me a picture, please!!! Probably not, but you will be fun to imagine, sulking at your computer.


1/06/2007 02:53:00 PM  
Anonymous markcreegan said...

William, Yours is the most intense art 'bout art Ive ever seen!

Juryduty touches on something interesting here
if art wasn't always at some level *about* art, you couldn't even recognize it as art.

I know many artists including myself at times, who, to a certain degree, would hate if their worked looked like "art". I am not sure how that idea fits into things here or really what that means. But I think JD's ideas are sound in that sometimes a work needs to reference art practices in order to enhance meaning. I am thinking for example about Janine Antoni's "Gnaw"- the huge block of chocolate cast in a minimalist cube then gnawed around the edges. Its that contrast of the bodily function with the stale, minimalist reference that give it its power.

Other artists who have used art as material/subject to varying degrees include Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, the Guerilla Girls, Robert Gober, Baldesarri, Hans Haake, and Meirle-Ukeles. It is right to say that most if not all of this work has other associations as well besides art. And I think probably correct to say that most artwork references art in some way.

1/06/2007 03:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this conversation makes me happy; keep it going
I like to induulge in Alec Soth's blog for great hits of artsiness

1/06/2007 04:55:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...


I'm curious, do you realize I am on your side in this discussion? Your reply is vague, which is your right, but I wonder if my prose is too twisted up to communicate.

Shoot man, there is no other subject in art but art. Content is exploitation or . . . dumb.

The point of my earlier post was that that does not mean it is useless or disconnected from reality, but that this path is the only path to 'enlightenment.' Art teaches by example not by scolding or lecturing.

Please take all this with some humor. I don't have the time or ability to finesse it.

1/06/2007 05:11:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


Knowing William as I do, I can tell you he's on your side as well... ;-)

1/06/2007 07:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

How about art about looking at art? (eg Thomas Davidson's England's Pride and Glory)

1/07/2007 01:15:00 AM  
Anonymous William said...


I realize you're an ally in this, I was just commenting about your perception that art about art isn't fashionable, which made me quite happy. Your post was quite clear and very reasonable.

I think the angry anonymous blogger might have put me a bit on edge though in my response. I think the tone may spilled over...

1/07/2007 04:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't all culture, all language, all form, all tradition - and all biology - built on, and with, that which preceded it?

If art wasn't always at some level *about* art, you couldn't even recognize it as art.

That's it, it's both. We skim along for a while with the above, sometimes several hundred years. And then below comes in and shakes things up, and takes several hundred years to get understood really for what it was, or was leading into.

And right, I don't get art about art. The Grooms mention is context/playing/political, not engaging necessarily with the art, but the models.

1/08/2007 12:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Student studying MA at Chelsea College, UK said...

The best Art i've seen was made by a person who wasn't thinking "am i making art?" while they were making it, in fact i'd go a step further and say the best Art I've ever seen was made by somebody who wasn't thinking at all, that is, thoughts of intention, purpose etc. during the creative process. Art about Art seems to me to be a very shallow and tiring concept to explore artistically; a kind of simulacrum of simulacrum that starts to become a game of spot the references and 'ticking the boxes'. Where's the creativity in that?

That's not to say that an artist couldn't make a successful career out of it, many have, I'm just dubious as to what that would achieve spiritually and intellectually, and if that person could get true fulfillment out of it- ultimately I'm saying that there's no right or wrong, but that it would take a very particular type of person to follow this avenue in their work for an extensive period of time, and be happy to do so.

Btw I loved this statement

"Moreover, for me, other potential paths toward spiritual or intellectual reward are too clumsy...make me too self-conscious...aren't quite "me."

by Student studying MA at Chelsea College, UK

3/03/2011 08:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Goetz Kluge said...

Watch carefully. There is more art about art than you expected:

And if you are lucky, you even could find a copy of Jean Lipman's and Richard Marshall's "Art aobout Art", 1978, ISBN 0-525-47502-8

12/21/2011 06:20:00 PM  

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