A Warning to the Reader About the Texts

You are reading something I wrote about my work, about my visual art, trying to explain to you what the work means. Only I’m not. I’m not even really trying.

One of my firm beliefs, one of my core values in terms of my work, is that a work of visual art must be a work of visual art.

Consider a movie. Some movies are very script-heavy. Some so much so that if you had the script and read it you would “get” almost all the movie had to offer. The images on the screen are little more than illustrations of what the words are saying. Maybe the movie part is superfluous?

Consider another movie. Say 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not a lot of talking in that film. But profound ideas are explored, and perhaps resolved. Reading the script would do very little for you in terms of capturing the ideas and the experience of the film.

It’s the same with visual art. So many young artists are trained with a heavy emphasis on texts, so-called “theory” (the word does not mean in the arts what it means in the sciences). That shows in their work, where the visual thing they created sometimes requires the accompanying text. The text captures almost all that they intended with the visual work. Something similar to the first film in my example, above.

I can’t help but wonder, when I encounter such works. Would it have been better if this had been a paragraph rather than a painting? That is to say, if you can put it into words, if you can write down what, more or less, a visual work is about, what it is like, what it intends, then maybe the natural place for those ideas and experiences is the written word. The artist simply chose the wrong medium. It’s an easy mistake to make.

So it’s a bit of a trick to write about art. It’s more of trick to write about your own art, so much so that I’d suggest that it is impossible. Or at least it should be impossible. Because that is the test I use. If I can describe my project to someone in some way that really gets to the heart of the matter, then I need to change or discard the project. It’s not there yet and never may be.

On the other hand I live in the real world. Other people, as easy as this is to forget, are not in my head with me. They don’t know all the stuff that I know, they don’t see what I see. The real shocker is that they don’t really care. Not really. They’re not going to spend hours of their life pondering a work that you put hours, days, weeks, years creating. It’s a poor medium for transmitting data. But its a good medium for reaching across the void between each of our inner lives, sharing, communicating something wordless and impossible to articulate. Something primal in our brain. No doubt and biologists will some day discover it all. But it’s real and it’s powerful. And you don’t really get there with words, certainly not words disguised as visual art.

You have seven seconds, in the real world. Go to any museum, gallery or even zoo and see for yourself. A viewer will look a piece for at most seven seconds, unless it is a famous work. Sometimes they will look briefly, dismiss it in a bored fashion, then note the wall label says a familiar name, and then look again with wide-eyed appreciation. But otherwise you have seven seconds.

To help hold people’s attention, to trick them into considering your work past those seven seconds, you need to say something about your work. You need to say it, curators need to say it, academics need to say it, reviewers need to say it. Art works without this apparatus of words surrounding them might as well not exist at all. They simply won’t be noticed by enough people.

And so I find myself writing about what I can not write about. A dilemma for sure but one that has an easy answer. Just write something, write anything. If you can’t write about the really important stuff (and if you can the visual work you created is a failure) you can write about the peripheral stuff. Although most readers will unavoidably mistake what you write as the verbal equivalent of the art work, despite telling them again and again it is not so, some viewers my take the words you write as more of a marker on a faint trail. Go this way, the words say, without revealing the destination. Also of great value, the words can say, Don’t go that way. Words can be valuable, even if they meander around the edges. At least they indicate the edges.