Friday, June 18, 2010

What We Talk About When We Talk About Ourselves | Open Thread

Bear with me on this one, it's an idea in its infancy and needs some molding. Feel free to push it around a bit.

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.

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12 Comments:

Blogger markcreegan said...

There is a paradoxic aspect to the making of artwork that I find intriguing. On one level it is the most self indulgent process imaginable where the artist must be in tune with her own thoughts and desires, her ego at full expression. But, at the same time, it is in those moments of complete honest self-reflection that the ego can be let go of. And most artists can account for those moments in the making when it seems a dialog with the object or material overtakes that dialog with oneself.

Outside of those few moments of seeming ego-lessness, i only have my own experiences and prejudices to draw from in thinking about and discussing art. And, as a teacher, I know that a more considered response to a work involves the examination of some degree of the maker's and responders' desires and prejudices which are shaped by experience. My teacher told me long ago that the study of art is the study of oneself (both in the finding and losing yourself).

6/18/2010 11:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

As soon as opinion is involved, it is always about ourselves, but even when we are distancing ourselves from opinion, we are always participacting in a social exchange for a reason. It's all yearning for peer recognition, social status, nurturing an impression that your existence is worth something.

But is there ever anything worthy or unworthy in this universe? Only a god could tell, but I only see a big shifting magma, with nothing loss, nothing gained (everything dies, nothing dies).

I'm mostly intrigued by this idea, that, if we all started from a single point of energy, is a notion a "self" legit? It should be "I, the Universe".


Cedric C

6/18/2010 12:41:00 PM  
Blogger Jesse Patrick Martin said...

I don't know to what degree you feel that Saltz is honoring "the artists of his time," but didn't he basically feign not knowing who Tom Friedman was for the sake of pandering to the perceived-ignorance of whoever's watching WANGA? And he may not have "bought into" J.L.'s vacuum cleaner art, but certainly he's aware of Koons' vacuums (which look entirely like a "department-store window display")? It seems like all of the judges are also withholding their "industry luminary" knowledge of the art-world(s) they participate in, I guess for the same reasons that Saltz is. And I don't think we can blame their collective amnesia on Bravo's wily editors. Regrettably (but predictably), they're bending to the cynical idea that they should abstain from invoking the knowledge and shrewdness that's given them success in the first place, because that would come off as "elitist" on such a "democratic" show.

Because I think it's tangentially relevant (and to keep in the spirit of the "me-centric" tangents that you've mentioned as frequently spinning out of "conversations about art"), I should mention that I recently wrote a post that also deals with artists and their "distractibility," which was inspired by reading Robert C. Morgan's essay "The Boredom of Cézanne."

6/18/2010 01:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Indeed, the best kind of art is that which stops you in your track, mouth hanging open, but no sounds coming out.

Great art stops thinking.

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.

The objects are what connect us to each other, sometimes spanning millenia and whole hemispheres. The conversations, in contrast, take place between people who already share a language, first literally and then metaphorically. We have them because they are mildly edifying even as they miss the point. They have no value as art and add no value to art, but they sometimes reveal unseen value in art.

The work of art that silently enriches the life of one viewer has completed its work.

6/19/2010 09:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

In "Being John Malkevich" there is the scene where he goes into his own head. Everyone he sees and meets is him saying his name (man or woman). I thought it profound.

We are all talking to ourselves in front of each other.

6/19/2010 12:15:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The work of art that silently enriches the life of one viewer has completed its work.

I trust that means you'll stop writing or talking about art then? ;-P

6/19/2010 12:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I trust that means you'll stop writing or talking about art then?

I said that the work had completed its work, not that I had completed mine.

6/19/2010 10:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Julian said...

You, me, the MET. See you there.

6/20/2010 03:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

...the value of art...
A concept of art from outside of the envelope: I see art as being all about the possibility of the viewer, for but a moment, being able to suspend their paradigm of reality, and to try out the paradigm of the given artwork. Similar to how play functions, suspending reality to learn of and master social interactions, art instead suspends realitys paradigms so that we can without risk, try them on, allowing us to see our original paradigms of how we know of the world (and so how we understand it.) Once free to see the water we swim in, any forthcoming changes are our choice, beyond arts role. Art simply gives us the chance to see the underling paradigm of our reality.

As that set of paradigms is constantly changing, and constantly needing revelation to the current generation, art always has much to reveal insight into. We may think art is evolving as we now explore interactive art or the latest "fad", but it is simply arts revealing of the latest paradigm we have accepted from technologies imbuing changes. Art is still simply revealing whatever our epochs paradigm happens to be.

And so when we talk of art, we talk of our proper paradigms that it allows us to see from the outside, -seen from trying out the artworks paradigm (appropriating without permanent social risk).

Hence we talk of the impact of that revelation of our proper paradigm, the artwork is the means for us to do so, prior to us forgoing or not, our current paradigm. Art likely is simply an extension of the mammalian propensity for play as a means of learning social behaviors, but an extension applied to social paradigms, allowing us the occasion to change those paradigms in a conscious manner. Art's forte is in its ability to allow us to suspend reality to temporarily and voluntarily see the world otherwise, permitting us insight into our quotidian paradigms. Not to lead, but simply to be the first to state out loud what we already have become.

Art will never run out of paradigms to reveal, nor newcomers to tell of older paradigms. When we speak of art, we speak of our own journeys into these other ways of knowing. It is our journey, our paradigm, that's why it sounds like we are speaking of ourselves and not the artwork. The artwork is simply the occasion to shine light upon our proper paradigms of our world.

Arts role is found in this suspension of reality, in moving us beyond unconscious change to the choice of how we know of the world. It doesn't change the world nor us, it just offers us the opportunity to see the changes, without permanent risk in understanding them.

An extraordinary evolution of plays functioning applied to society.

6/20/2010 09:04:00 AM  
Blogger Stefano Pasquini said...

Beautiful post, Ed.

I wish I had something of value to add, but I doubt it's the case. I'm just thinking about Jerry, and think we all know what is art and what isn't, but it can only be true for ourselves. No?

I always had this romantic theory that there isn't a drawline between art and life, but this post made me question it. And I thank you for that.

6/21/2010 07:20:00 AM  
Blogger CAP said...

In my mind, Jerrys Saltz and Seinfeld are starting to blur...

6/21/2010 10:11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What do we talk about when we talk about ourselves? I love the idea of that post title, just as I have always loved the title of Raymond Carver's book and also Haruki Murakami's memoir (What I Talk about When I Talk about Running) that also co-opted that title (with permission, from Carver's widow...)
I liked the implication of transformation that I see in those titles, the idea that talking about one thing becomes talking about something else. To me, it is the same transformation that is at the root of art and especially, the creative process.
Of course, when Murakami talks about running, he is really talking about his own creative process. And when Carver talks about love... well, for that one, I think you have to read the book.

Put more simply, it's all about metaphor. And it is that metaphor that I am always looking for in art, and that keeps me coming back again and again.

Based on your post, it seems to me that when Saltz talks about art, he's not just talking about himself, he's talking about his feelings . A lot of people have trouble talking about themselves, especially their feelings/emotions. But feelings (emotions, not sensations) are not just internal states, feelings are always feelings about something or someone, and very much about how we connect with the world around us. And art can help us make those connections.
As Olafur Eliasson noted,

"We’ve always been told that feelings are introverted states. It’s curious that so little work has been done on the nature of feelings until recently; cognitive scientists, for example, have begun to focus on them. Our culture promotes a split between the mind and the body, which doesn’t allow for an understanding of feeling as an extroverted activity."

When I talk about art, I am talking about myself. When I talk about myself, I am talking not talking about me, I'm talking about we, myselves, ourselves.

-Saskia

6/22/2010 05:28:00 PM  

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