Originally published with thedetroiter.com
And so it begins again — Conversations by Robin Grearson and Colin Darke
I apologize for that awkward silence. I had an influx of ideas and then . . . pop, my head exploded. It happens. For those who forgot where we left off, click here to read our previous posts.
Your last post opens the door to a lot of questions – a lot of questions. How do you really see art? What is art as opposed to merely a beautiful or intriguing image? Can the artist reveal too much?
You, however, directed our conversation to thoughts about “honesty,” and whether artists can be too honest—that is, whether artists can reveal too much or focus too much on themselves rather than their audience. And you made the observation that an artist’s most personal pieces often resonate the least.
My initial answer is that I do not think an artist can be too honest, and I think the phenomenon you reference of an artist’s deeply personal work not resonating with the viewer may be attributed to my false symbols observation. That is, the artist is not truly being too personal; rather the artist is being too sentimental in the guise of being open and honest through the use of blatant symbols to invoke a carefully crafted outcome.
I will readily admit that I do not have sufficient answers, and that I have not done the necessary deep thinking to truly vet my ideas on all of the issues I believe our conversation highlights. Yet this is a conversation, and it was rude for me to merely sit with my mouth open and allow an awkward silence to fill the air. So let’s focus on honesty in art-making and art viewing.
Honesty in Art-Making
I hate to focus on one-venue during these discussions, but I reviewed the latest shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, and these shows helped me evaluate my thoughts on the subject of honesty. But first I’ll talk about an artist that would never appear at MoCAD: Thomas Kinkade.
I believe that Thomas Kinkade is not honest in his art making, because he focuses on gimmicks and sentimentality (and marketing) to create an artificial dialogue with his audience. If you are not familiar with his work, he creates bucolic scenes, often with a quaint little cottage, where he uses different textures and saturations to capture “light.” He is the self-proclaimed “painter of light,” and regularly sells his work on QVC. This is the gimmick.
More troubling is his Christian themed works (and other associated kitsch merchandise). This is the sentimentality. He overtly tells the audience with symbols and language that “this is a Christian painting.” So the audience is not asked to respond to the merit of his artistic language. Instead, he plays on an easy chord to illicit his target audience’s faith. This is not an honest artistic practice, but rather he employs an engineer’s practice where his ultimate goal is carefully identified: he uses a tried and true set of instructions, and he produces a specific piece to illicit a specific pious awe from his specific audience.
Through this work, I do not know anything about Thomas Kinkade the artist. I only know about Thomas Kinkade the engineer/marketer.
This is an extreme example, but it illustrates an instance where it may appear to the viewer that the artist is being too open and honest through imagery that the artist finds beautiful and through ideas the artist finds profound. Yet when you step back and focus on what the piece really tells us about the artist, I believe you realize that it does not tell us anything about the artist beyond his ability to produce an object.
Now to MoCAD. Barely there Part II is currently showing along with Stéphanie Nava’s installation Considering a Plot (Dig for Victory), which is a work-in-progress.
I reviewed barely there Part I back in July (click here to read the previous review). I really enjoyed the show as an in-depth exploration of conceptual art, yet I did not like the piece by Wilfredo Prieto entitled Infidelity. I thought the piece failed because it only echoed Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. In barely there Part II Mr. Prieto provided a new piece that consists of holy water spilled on the floor. While this piece resonated with me a little more than his Infidelity piece, I still believe both of these pieces fail because they are stifled in the artist’s preconceived plan to illicit a specific reaction from his audience. This is not a conversation, or at least it is not a particularly constructive one, because it is a simple narrative reached through a deliberate path without the artist truly telling us about himself.
So similar to Kinkade’s work, the piece may illicit an initial reaction that the artist is sharing too much of himself and his concern or dislike of his Christian heritage, yet when you step back you notice that you really do not learn anything more about the artist let alone yourself.
You may ask, “But doesn’t all art have a set plan that the artist must follow to illicit a specific reaction?” I am glad you asked. I believe successful artwork does not have a rigid plan to reach a simple reaction from the audience. Rather, the artist has a concept and then uses certain elements to explore that concept, and – importantly—the artist leaves some of the process open to allow the audience to participate.
A perfect example of this is Stéphanie’s piece. In her installation (which is intelligently referenced as a work-in-progress), she explores the history of subsistence gardens. Namely, she explores the history of English allotments, and she focuses her thoughts and her eye on “grow your own” food programs of World War Two.
To explore this history, she uses her intellectual talent and gift as an artist to create beautiful drawings, environments, and structures. She is honest in her art process, and she leaves imagery, context, and space open to allow the audience to participate (intellectually and physically). She is not attempting to drive one message into the head of the viewer through a methodical process; rather, her work allows the audience to see the artist’s progression and thought process as she is entranced by this particular historical subject matter. You leave the exhibit wanting to know more about the artist and the subject matter.
Honesty in art viewing
Of course, a good conversation needs at least two willing participants. In your last piece, you mentioned that you took a friend to see Rivane Neuenschwander’s I Wish Your Wish. You previously saw the piece and it moved you, yet your friend was not moved. The artist may have been dishonest and slipped into using gimmicks, and she may have forced an overly sentimental outcome. Or your friend may have not been receptive to the piece based on certain self-imposed barriers. If someone refuses to listen, it does not matter that a song is beautiful.
Often an artist presents us with truths about ourselves that we do not want see: We are afraid, we are worried, and we are sentimental, and so on. They can present these truths honestly in a way that resonates with the viewer or dishonestly in a way that uses stock symbols and a set plan that may resonate with a viewer initially but will fall flat upon deeper reflection. I am not sure where this piece falls within the line between honesty and dishonesty. Yet before we say a piece fails, we have to remember that a person may not be receptive to a piece because they are guarded or lack the historical references to experience the layers of a piece (just as a good poem can be a great poem to a learned listener).
For example, throughout high school, I did not like conceptual art. I was never really exposed to it, but I read about certain pieces and decided that if someone did not have certain natural gifts for drawing, than that person was not a true artist, and for all intents and purposes that person merely tried to con the viewer. In college, I found out this was true. But more importantly, I also found out that my preconception was false.
I was naïve to think I had a substantive opinion about a genre of art. You can only have substantive opinions about certain pieces of art. When I put up barriers to a genre of art, I was not listening and I was shutting myself out from potentially meaningful conversations where I could learn more about myself.
And to a degree I believe this honesty works outside of the problem of subjectivity. I believe that the following premise is wrong: all art appreciation is subjective and as such exclusive of any true definition for all viewers. True, we are all creatures of our minds, so at its extreme all life is subjective.
You mention that because a viewer can only internally connect with a piece of art or not, there is no one thing that art can objectively be defined as. But people learn and grow, and certain art can move us on an intellectual and emotional level because we were open to previous art. An artist’s job, in part, is to interject themselves into the discussions of previous artists who found a way to strike a chord with society and then add their unique life story to the dialogue. Some artists are so swept up with the historical narrative that they jump to areas that they know are particularly novel, which is a practice that falls into the category of the artist talking to him or herself and ignoring his or her audience. There has to be a bridge.
The greatest intellects are not the ones that use large words to confuse their audience because the speaker is lost in the speaker’s ideas and unique language. Rather, the great intellects are the ones that can speak to and inspire everyone, and who take large ideas and condense them for their audience. Other disciplines know this, and I hope that this is a time in art history where artists realize that there has to be a dialogue – nothing is accomplished by talking to oneself.
Stéphanie Nava’s work provides a bridge. She creates an environment where the audience is able to walk with the artist during her journey, and the audience is able to see the artist’s hand at work. At times in contemporary art there may be a language gap based on one person in the conversation not knowing the trade terms or having the historical base to start from, but the more-informed talker (the artist) has the responsibility to offer an easy path to understand the deeper thoughts in the conversation. But, of course, some people just refuse to listen.