Monday, June 11, 2018


I was reminded yesterday how much I dislike artspeak. The occasion was the otherwise engaging, sometimes challenging, sometimes entertaining, sometimes visually alluring, sometimes even emotionally absorbing "Made in LA 2018" exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

So this is NOT a review of the exhibition, which deserves serious review in publications more widely read than this one. This is rather a purely personal reflection on what I consider to be one baleful aspect of the inheritance of 1970s Conceptualism on artists working today: the need to justify their work with mostly rather pretentious, frequently unreadable explanation.

So allow me to indulge my inner grouch. Well, perhaps not so inner, but definitely a grouch. I don't like to be told what to think, or how to look at an artwork. And I'll confess that my enjoyment of the exhibition in question was marred by the ubiquitous wall texts--authored, presumably, by well-meaning curators in consultation with participating artists--that sought to inform the viewer about the work but which, for me at least, served as a distraction from what I was simply trying to look at on the gallery wall (or floor).

Call me antediluvian, but I find it sad that artists feel the need--and in many cases have been taught, in the art schools--to explain their work to the viewer, whether its process or its intended "meaning." To my mind, this kind of explanation tends to take the infinite range of possibilities of a potentially complex work of art and narrow it to the verbal parameters of the text. Worse, the explanation (the concept?) often precedes the work itself, predetermining and narrowing that range of possibilities even before the work is done. It is the polar opposite of my own aesthetic as a writer, expressed in that wonderful old adage, "How do I know what I think 'til I see what I say?"

That said, I must add a further grouch: to wit, that for all their good intentions, both artists and curators are too readily seduced by the handy availability of the impenetrable jargon that passes for critical discourse and is taught in those art school classes that claim to promote "professional" skills for students, most of whom will likely never be called upon to use them. It is usually recognizable within the first few words, and causes the mind to numb itself protectively before the end of the first sentence.

"Ideas" are fine. There was surely a historical moment for Conceptualism in art. But they can also serve to diminish the potential fullness and even the joy of the aesthetic experience. I think of the artwork as an amalgam of the four elements that, in proper balance and coordination with each other, form the basis of all human integrity: the intellectual, yes; but also the body-physical, the emotional and, for want to a better word, the spiritual.

I often leave a gallery or a museum today with the dispiriting feeling that the work I saw was too easy, too somehow thin, too easy to "get" at a glance or two--and then, just as easily, "forget." If I'm disappointed it's because I went there looking something greater than ideas or insights, no matter how brilliant or engaging; I'm looking, eagerly, for substance, sustenance, something to expand my experience of the world through the experience of a fellow human being. And ideas, bless them, are thin gruel. I'm still hungry when I leave.

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