Archive for the Art Category
Some art, yesterday.
Going through some boxes, deciding what to chuck out, I came across some old art magazines. Now, in a previous life, I was doing a PhD in the history of art, something I abandoned to take up novel writing. The reasons for this are quite complex – financial considerations, career prospects, lack of ability – but one of the major factors was that half the time, I hadn’t a fucking clue what anybody was talking about.
This is because there is no useful style of writing for discussing art today. Much art writing is influenced by critical theory – your Baudrillards, Kristevas and the like. All good stuff, although dense and sometimes obtuse, but they can write like that and get away with it because they’re brilliant. If anybody who is less than brilliant tries their hand at it, then chances are they’ll come over sounding like a pretentious twerp.
(I’m not sure why there’s such a strong link between critical theory and art. They generally make students read it in art schools, although most of it is rooted in subjects like philosophy and sociology, and there’s no real evidence that it makes anybody’s art any better. If you just got everybody to read Robinson Crusoe or something instead, would their art really be any worse?)
The real problem with art writing at the moment is that it’s just not good writing. Rather than explaining complex ideas in a simple way (which is what Good Writing does), art writing explains what are relatively basic ideas (art is easier to understand than, say, quantum mechanics) in a fantastically complicated manner. Take this random extract from an exhibition review I found in a magazine from the box this morning:
Foster has suggested that the ‘artist as ethnographer’ is heir to the neo-Avant Garde’s pioneering of political and institutional critique. Although Piper could claim a different lineage, many of the works in ‘East’ complied with this model and, through reframing social interaction, presented a critical distance. As Foster outlines, one possible dilemma for such practices is that the aim ultimately become a place in the museum and therefore in history, a goal which can dull the dialogical relationship a work might have with its audience: the aim being to critique rather than to affect a scene or audience.
Ok, I’m taking it out of context, which is unfair, but even so, did you remotely understand any of it? Did you even want to? Or did the words repel you with their willful desire not to communicate? Also, the repetition of ‘audience’ at the end is ugly. Did no one edit this?
I have to declare that I am not entirely innocent. I once wrote an exhibition review for artwank mag Frieze which I’m sure I’d find painfully embarrassing today if only I could bring myself to read it. It’s documented here for posterity, unfortunately (After this, all my suggestions for reviews were rejected, and it became clear that I had been cast out of the kingdom of Frieze forever. I’d somehow failed them, it seemed, with my publishable exhibition review).
I am not alone in realising the problem of all art writing being terrible. A number of years ago, just before giving yet another wad of cash to Damien Hirst for winning the Turner Prize, the incredibly clever musician Brian Eno pointed this very thing out to a roomful of glitter-arty folk. Unfortunately he ran out of time before he could tell them what to do about it, but expanded upon his view in this article.
As Eno says, the inability of art insiders to communicate to those on the outside adds to the belief much of the general public possess that art is pretty irrelevant to them. But does it have to be this way? People can talk about pop music and film in ways that are intelligent and yet perfectly clear (Sight and Sound shows up all art magazines for the pseudobabble they really are, and is accessible and therefore popular enough for many corner newsagents to stock it), so why not art? I propose a punk-style Year Zero for art writing, where all the old worn out phrases (strategy, engage, investigate, subvert, liminal, specifity etc.) are thrown out, so that new ways of writing about it can be discovered, and hopefully leading to something that isn’t alienating to 99.99% of the population.
I’m not saying it would be easy. Every time I try to write a simple sentence about art, the urge to use phrases such as ‘abject matrix of strategic singularity’ is quite overwhelming, even when describing the gallery car park. Also, all the decent art’s in bloody London, and I can’t afford the train fare. But next time I’m up there, I’ll set myself the challenge of coming back and writing about what I saw, here on this blog, and see if I can come up with something that’s fresh, intelligent, and of quality, doing justice both to the art itself as well as the English language. And if I manage it, Brian Eno has to buy me lunch or let me polish his already shiny head. Stay tuned!