The writer in me has a hard time leaving images alone, the artist in me keeps smacking words away. And there are so many words. Direct, poetic, truthful, manipulative — they occupy various roles and in within those functions carry degrees of weight and sharpness. I feel each one in an attempt to decipher its necessity. The artist in me shakes her head regardless, unimpressed, even though writing is so much part of the process of creating the image in the first place.
Words are also a big part of how people interact with art. Stand by and watch people in an art museum — they will look momentarily at the work, then look for a label, read the label and possibly the description if there is one, then look back at the art object. If they’re still having difficulty with the object, they might return to the writing or move on. In galleries, they tend to seek out an artist statement or bio. Art institutions spend a lot of time and money attempting to offer the right kind and the right amount of information to their visitors. People expect words because a room full of art objects is terrifying.
One of the powerful aspects of viewing art is how intimate it can be if you simply walk up to the object and look. Really look. Instead of worrying about that crabby lady wearing an American flag fanny pack behind you, trying to rush you along so she can rush along onto the gift shop, or wondering if anyone thinks you look stupid wearing red eyeglasses, or whether or not you should like the art because it’s very old or made by some famous white dude, you can give yourself over to that moment and look at an object that demands nothing from you.
If you get something from the object, it’s because you allowed yourself to see it, you allowed yourself a response. I would like to say art is for everyone, but frankly, it’s not for people too lazy or busy to peel an orange. It’s not for people who hate cats because they don’t rush at you with an abundance of love and acceptance the way dogs do. I’m sorry. Correct me if I’m wrong, please. But some people are just not wired for loving art. At most, they may appreciate a very selective and limited range of art.
While they may not be in the same boat as the rest of us, they are definitely coasting along in the same river. Movies, television, YouTube videos, video games, advertisements, magazines — an excess of media fills our everyday lives. Yet Americans are not particularly familiar with art. Two people are more likely to bond over a funny commercial on television than they are to enthusiastically talk about their experience viewing a Vermeer or Titian. That’s not a judgment call I’m making. That wouldn’t be fair. It’s easy to find yourself near a television or magazine, even if you generally avoid them. You might not like the Kardashians, but you’ve heard of them, right? Maybe even talked about them?
In the cacophony of daily life, where art may or may not be recognized, it makes words and writers, including and excluding critics, potential lightbringers to the dim. Throughout history, many writers of varying backgrounds and agendas have offered their words to art: Charles Baudelaire, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Jeanette Winterson, Donald Judd, Roberta Smith, James Elkins, and Jerry Saltz. Some artists write about their own work or include text within their work itself, such as Jenny Holzer, Tracey Emin, Christopher Wool, and Carolee Schneeman. And let’s not forget a grand, romantic, and sometimes embarrassing history of manifestos. (I’m looking at you, Futurists.)
When I first read Marlene Dumas’ writing in Suspect, an earthquake of feeling and purpose shook my body. I didn’t know I was allowed to write. (I also didn’t know that I was secretly seeking that permission.) Have you ever read Kara Walker’s writing? It’s like laughing while being stabbed. On the opposite end of the word appreciation spectrum, if you’ve read a fair amount of artist statements and writing, you’ve undoubtedly had some moments when you inwardly rolled your eyes, laughed, felt baffled, or some combination thereof. Maybe it caused you skipped the writing (and the art) altogether.
Last year Jerry Saltz visited East Tennessee State University and he talked a bit about art writing during his lecture, which I asked him to elaborate on during the following reception. He said artists can’t really be critics because we want to write in support of our friends, “not unless you can be an asshole about it”. What I forgot to ask was, “How the hell do I write at all?”
If you offer any words, they will be attached to the interpretation of your work. Even if you are writing about a boxing match and your art is safely tucked away on another website minding its own business. The writer in me has already made peace with this while the artist in me resents explanation. The writer is not concerned with how neatly the fragmented pieces line up. The artist is considering how to make entire sections disappear beneath a single, veiled image. She is already spinning a story. The writer is not interested in one story.