August 26 2015

Image of Guffwatch


In The Guardian, the writer Julian Barnes has some wise words for us on the origins of contemporary art guff:

[...] he said artists were today expected to explain and write about their work far too much: Matisse had offered good advice to young practitioners “when he said that ‘artists should have their tongues cut out’, because it has increasingly become the case that from a very young age artists have to have a narrative about what it is they are actually doing. You sometimes feel that the narrative is almost floating free from the art; it’s part of the publicity that they have to do. You feel that instead of gradually discovering what it is they are doing they seem to have to have a thesis to begin with.”

By way of example, he offered a text written by American artist Jeff Koons to accompany his work Puppy [above], a vast sculpture formed from flowering plants belonging to the Guggenheim Bilbao in northern Spain. Reading aloud from Koons’ text, he told the Edinburgh audience that Puppy “helps you have a dialogue about the organic and the inorganic. It’s really about the issue of the baroque, where everything is negotiated. The different aspects of the eternal through biology. Whether you want to serve or be served, love or be loved, all these types of polarities come into play because Puppy sets them up.” 

Barnes added: “To use the technical term of art criticism, it’s bollocks. I know it’s like shooting fish in a barrel but sometimes fish need to be shot.”

I think Barnes is right - that these days the narrative (that is, the words) must come before the art. Furthermore, the assumption that words and theories must come first has infected not only art criticism but also art history. Hence the profusion of art guff even about works from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

I recently went to a selling exhibition of works by a reasonably well known Scottish landscape artist. I won't embarrass him or his gallery by naming either here. The artist is in his eighties, and paints extraordinarily beautiful but straightforward landscapes.

In Constable's day, the honest and evocative rendering of landscape was seen as a Good Thing in itself. But now, as Barnes reflects, such pictures need 'narratives'. Sometimes, artists, especially those of an older generation, aren't especially good at drumming up the words beloved in art speak; these artists prefer simply to paint. And in such cases a wordsmith is often drafted in on their behalf; in this case the exhibition catalogue had an introduction by a well regarded, young art historian academic evidently steeped in contemporary artspeak.

I've no doubt that those fluent in artspeak understood what the academic was trying to say in the catalogue. But personally I couldn't figure out why the fine landscapes on display were about such things as 'subsiduary dualities', and 'dualities of the present'. I just about understood the bit about a 'deeply human connection' with the landscape, but wondered if human connections with landscapes - whatever they are - could ever be 'deep', or indeed rendered in a painted form.

To see if the artist himself (who was at the preview) understood his paintings in the manner described, I decided to ask him about one of the landscapes on display. And, charmingly, he told me all about the particular scene he had painted, when he did it, and how. I heard not a word about 'dualities', and was reminded of Turner's remark on Ruskin; 'he sees more in my pictures than I ever painted'. I appreciated the picture even more on hearing the artist's own interpretation, and bought it.

Update - Dr Matt Loder of the University of Essex tweets:

Steven Spielberg thinks Jaws is about a shark, Bendor. Artists are rarely the best people to ask about their work.

On which basis too much art history, as an academic discipline, has become what it has; a bullshitter's charter to impose upon a work or works of art whatever social, political or economic theory happens to be in fashion at the time, even though it may be impossible to base such a theory on contemporary evidence. I have no problem with people who go in for this sort of thing, and some of it is interesting and stimulating - at least in the sense that it poses questions. But it's not the way I see pictures, and I don't think it's the way artists painted them either.

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