I have been thinking recently about how, if and when an artist should ‘explain’ their work. I was reading a letter online complaining about Tatham & O’Sullivan’s work “Are You Locationalized” in the West Highland Free Press. The letter writer said
“I am not qualified to comment on the complexity of the artwork, but, provocation of its viewers there has certainly been. Most particularly in relation to its situation. The overwhelming reactions I have witnessed have been hostility, outrage and incredulity that this thing will dominate the Portree skyline instead of the landmark everyone recognises.”
The work, part of Generation 2014 has been commissioned by the excellent Atlas Arts, based on the Isle of Skye. About ten years ago, I invigilated an exhibition of Tatham & O’Sullivan’s at the Venice Bienalle. I found it hard to understand the work, and I wanted some form of explanation from the artists, to give me more confidence when talking about the work to the public. This new work, looks particularly interesting (in photos, I haven’t seen it in Skye) one of the sculptures seems to turn the side of a building into a sounding post for mystical messages from space. At least, that’s how I’m reading it for now. It has taken a long time for me to reach the point where I can look at an artwork and not feel like I am being deliberately intimidated, this is probably down in part to my lack of exposure to art when younger, and a certain lack of confidence at art school.
Not being ‘qualified to comment on the complexity of the artwork’ is something that many people outside of the art world often think. I have been conscious of this, particularly when making Forest Pitch, and attempting to communicate with locals, councillors, contractors etc etc. I would wrestle with how much I wanted to tell people and why. I knew that the work was not highly conceptual or intellectual, and if people were given an ‘in’, then hopefully they would if not appreciate it, at least feel in a better position to make a judgement on it. I also felt a responsibility due to the public nature, and funding, of the project to communicate the idea as succinctly and clearly as I could, whether in public or private meetings, interviews, press things. I became concerned that I may end up talking the work away, removing a certain amount of mystery from it. I also find that if I analyse my own motivations too much, then work loses interest for me, and I lose desire to complete things. So I began to try and devise ways to talk around the ideas that originally motivated Forest Pitch, in the hope that that would be enough for people who didn’t feel ‘qualified’ to start thinking for themselves. I don’t know how well I managed it, but it was an attempt at a solution to the difficulty in maintaining some mystery.
I do think that artists have a responsibility to attempt to make art interesting and vital to people who feel intimidated or fearful of it. Personally, I do think artists talking about their own work in an open environment is a good way to achieve this. I recently took part in a talk about my new film “The Drummer & the Drone” (Edinburgh Art Festival, on til the end of August, 10-6pm everyday, make sure you catch it while you can etc etc) with Brigadeer David Allfrey MBE, who is the director of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Although there weren’t loads of people there, there were enough to feel comfortable, and I felt I was able to talk around the work again, with making explicit the exact motivations behind the film or any underlying ‘meaning’. I am still not sure what some of the film is ‘about’, or what I’m ‘trying to say’, and I think most artists if pushed would admit there is more than a little uncertainty about what they do in their own minds, and I think this is a positive thing. I don’t know if that is clear to the unqualified public, and perhaps it would make things easier if a certain amount of the artistic inspiration myth is picked apart. But how to square that with the desire not to over simplify and take away all of the mystery I’m not sure.
So, back to explaining. Jonathan Jones is not my favourite critic (I’m not his favourite artist either) but he has written in the past that “explanations are the traitor of art’ and;
“It is a vice of second-rate art to come with its own eloquent explanation attached. If an artist can translate the meaning and purpose of a work into easily understandable words, it means one of two things. Either the artist is lying, in order to ease the way with patrons and funders; or the artist is a fool. And if dishonesty is the reason, that too is something that vitiates art. No serious art is easy to interpret. Nor is there ever a single valid interpretation of art. If art is good, there are many things to be said about it and much that will remain unsayable.”
Now, there’s plenty to pick apart here, not least what ‘serious art’ is. But he is right there is no one explanation of an art work. Even during the short time “The Drummer & the Drone” has been on, at least 4 people have offered me their insight into elements of the film which I had never thought about. Sometimes these views are offered in a way as if to say “is this right?”. There is no right. If you could write it all down you’d be a writer not a visual artist. Explanations neutralise the potential for individual interpretation. But there has to be a way to engage people in the things they find outrageous and incredulous, a way which doesn’t further alienate or humiliate.
One of the obvious ways is to encourage people to do some research, about the artists, the context, the commission etc. But so many people are used to viewing art in a gallery, with a little explanatory caption, that they may not have the patience or desire to do any working out for themselves. There has to be a way to allow people in, without holding their hand through the door. I am thinking along the lines of a television programme. Anyway, that’s for me to work out. I am sure there are already lots of attempts to get people not normally interested in art to approach it with confidence. There’s another interesting article in the Independent about artists explaining their art here.
I would love to be able to not ever say anything about the work I do, but I fear its unrealistic at this stage. I also fear that people will just not go near art for the reason that it just seems too alien to them without some explanation. The solution has to be giving people confidence to look, and draw their own conclusions. How do we instil that confidence so that art can become if not an ‘everyday’ experience for everyone, then ‘everyweek’ ‘everymonth’ or at least ‘everyyear’? Perhaps it needs to begin at school and continue into secondary school. The skills of observation, consideration, interpretation, analysis, understanding emotional and intellectual stimuli are vital, not just to those studying art.
I read somewhere else that an artist should not write about their own work, and if they need something written, to get someone else to do it. That is a little naive to me, particularly when almost every single art student has gone through their course writing about their work in statement after statement. However, if anyone wants to write something on my behalf, please get in touch.