What We Talk About When We Talk About Ourselves | Open Thread
I talk a lot about art, art making, art selling, art viewing, and art appreciation. A while back, I wrote a post titled "Who we talk about when we talk about art" (riffing off Raymond Carver's title for his collection of short stories and swinging off Oscar Wilde's declaration that "I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so," which has been interpreted by Pierre Bayard, author of Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus? to suggest "For Wilde, a fanatical non-reader avant la lettre, the object of criticism was himself.")
Indeed, I'm fairly sure after all these years of talking about art that what we're all really talking about in doing so is ourselves. Seriously, how many conversations about art that you have stay focused on the object? How many quickly veer off into discussions about the person you're taking with? Think about it...I'll wait.
For the artists who made the work, this is sort of understandable. They are, after all, putting so much of themselves into their art. For collectors, as well, whose collections as a whole usually reflect more about who they are than it does much about most of the individual artists in it, it kind of makes sense. For critics too, whose unique eye and opinions serve as the only distinction between their reviews and reporting...I can see why it happens. (Dealers have much less of an excuse---although some of us like to flatter ourselves into thinking our programs reflect who we are---but just try and stop us from talking...go ahead, give it your best shot). For most of us in the art world, art is simply a pretext for self-reflection where the dialog is concerned.
And I think that's OK. Art objects can ignore our narcissistic chatter as easily as any other thing on the planet and we always return to them again anyway, after we embarrassingly realize we've stopped talking about them.
But after thinking about this for a number of years, I've begun to wonder a bit more about those self-indulgent tangents. If indeed we're talking about ourselves when we're talking about art, what is it exactly we're talking about when we talk about ourselves?
T.L. Stanley seems to have been thinking along the same lines when he asked recently "What happens when 'Work of Art' judge Jerry Saltz recaps his own show?":
Not only is Jerry Saltz deconstructing art-in-the-making as a judge on Bravo's new reality series, "Work of Art," he's also laying bare the innards of the show itself -- as a recapper for New York magazine's Vulture blog. (His day job is being art critic for the magazine.)[...]
Especially helpful for viewers who aren't steeped in art, Saltz lets us know that sometimes a pile of trash is just that. Contestants this week worked with discarded electronics, appliances and gadgets, while waxing philosophical about it. Saltz wasn't buying into competitor Jaime Lynn's vacuum cleaner-centric project, which he said looked like a department-store window display. "I actually think that you're not creating art here," he said matter-of-factly.
And Saltz sees right through overused art-world jargon like "figurative painter" and "conceptual art circles." One competitor had described another as "well-known in conceptual-art circles," to which Saltz replied on Vulture: "There are no conceptual-art circles. There haven't been any since the late '60s."[...]Just know that he's as interested in the artists' process as in the finished product (that may or may not describe the TV audience too) but at least he has a distinct point of view and doesn't require pantomimes and a translator to understand it.
On the surface it would seem straightforward enough that Jerry Saltz is talking about his own experience on the show, but looking closely, I think it's more than that. Here's a bit from his latest recap:
Maybe I am an “attention whore” (as someone called me on Facebook), because I really perked up when the artists presented their work to the judges. I told Jamie that her vacuum-cleaner sculpture did not even look like art to me — that it resembled a store window display instead. I also said more mean stuff about how it looked like set design and that she needed to step things up, but all of that was edited out. Contestant Judith later complained about me, describing what I said to her as “over-the-top harsh.” I like Judith a lot. But I did accuse her of arranging “a bunch of junk on a table.” I also told her she was going on and on in her explanation and that it was driving me nuts; none of that made it onto the show, either.So what do we learn from that? Jerry remembers what people call him on Facebook, he knows what he feels other people's "art" should look like, he knows when what he said sounds "mean" to its target, he knows when something someone does drives him "nuts," and he keeps tabs on what it is he says that the show's producers edit out.
While on the surface it would seem that this is All About Jerry, each of those statements is actually about a relationship. Between Jerry and his "friends" on Facebook, between Jerry and the artists of his time, between Jerry and the recipients of his critique, between Jerry and the producers of the show. OK, so I left out the item in which he was being driven nuts...perhaps that one's between Jerry and himself (or the voices in his head or whatever :-), but even that is a relationship...and arguably a very healthy and important one (to cite Wilde again "To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance").
So perhaps that's what we're talking about when we talk about ourselves...our relationships with those around us. And, because we can't experience the world through anyone else's eyes, what we're really doing in discussing those relationships is trying to connect.
Samuel Beckett wrote once, "To restore silence is the role of objects." Indeed, the best kind of art is that which stops you in your track, mouth hanging open, but no sounds coming out. It needn't be spectacular to do that either...a small Agnes Martin can do that as easily as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But another role of objects is to launch the sort of conversations that ultimately are not about the objects, but about what connects us to each other. Good art does that. Good conversations about art do that too.
Again, these ideas are still forming in my head...consider this an open thread on discussing art, even as it digresses into talking about ourselves.