Reading art writing requires an extra cup of coffee for me to be able to stomach. I can more easily plow through a scientific abstract than smoothly digest art writing, which takes the simplest ideas and often strives to make them as complicated, vague and important as possible. I feel oddly guilty about this because I love art, I love exploring ideas, I love to learn, I am not intimidated by difficult text and art is my chosen field. Yet when I want to wind down with an article at the end of the day, art writing is not my choice. I fail to buy it, and get distracted and exhausted by my own judging and eye rolling when I notice the effort that the writer took to make a simple idea seem lofty or ambiguous. On many occasions I am bewildered by the first or second reading of a sentence. Art writing is the frame taking over the painting. Here are the types words that are favorites in the field: polymath, normative, palimpsest, transversal, polemic, zeitgeist, ziggurat, semiotic, polemic, etc. Sure, there are uses for them, but sometimes I feel like yelling, “Stop trying so hard! It’s just art!” Here is an example of some drivel from a Whitney Biennial catalogue as noted in the blog of artist and critic Carol Diehl:
“Bove’s ‘settings’ draw on the style, and substance, of certain time-specific materials to resuscitate their referential possibilities, to pull them out of historical stasis and return them to active symbolic duty, where new adjacencies might reactivate latent meanings.”
The conceptual art trend that started in the 1960’s valued the idea or concept behind the art rather than its physical identity. The “father” of conceptual art, Sol LeWitt, codified these ideas in his “Sentences on Conceptual Art”. Here are some statements from that paper:
“Since no form is intrinsically superior to another, the artist may use any form, from an expression of words (written or spoken) to physical reality, equally.”
“The artist may not necessarily understand his own art. His perception is neither better nor worse than that of others.”
“When words such as painting and sculpture are used, they connote a whole tradition and imply a consequent acceptance of this tradition, thus placing limitations on the artist who would be reluctant to make art that goes beyond the limitations.”
“All ideas are art if they are concerned with art and fall within the conventions of art.”
The theory that anything is art and anyone with an idea is an artist infuses art thinking all the way into post modern and new media art of today. But if anyone with an idea is an artist, it doesn’t seem to follow that anyone with a pen is an art writer. Just as most currently celebrated art is conceptual in nature, so is the writing about it. This is not necessarily a no-brainer; in fact art writing historically was aesthetically based. But if art itself is no longer aesthetically based, it follows that art writing would become an account of the viewer’s experience of the work, but with so much of today’s art having no obvious meaning, meanings are deciphered by the curators and critics, and the accompanying vague and nonsensical gibberish has itself become part of the art. How would the art be received without it? As stated by Eric Gibson in his hilarious Wall Street Journal article, The Lost Art of Writing About Art, “The writer no longer [has] to base his critical observations on a close scrutiny of the work of art. He [can] simply riff.” This is just what Sol LeWitt (Artsy’s Sol LeWitt page) was talking about in terms of fine art so imagine how I died laughing when I came upon “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing” by Kenneth Goldsmith, an American poet/professor/artist who is driven by a preoccupation with “Uncreativity as Creative Practice.” Echoing Sol LeWitt’s sentences, he writes:
“Conceptual writing is not necessarily logical. The logic of a piece or series of pieces is a device that is used at times, only to be ruined. Logic may be used to camouflage the real intent of the writer, to lull the reader into the belief that she understands the work, or to infer a paradoxical situation (such as logic vs. illogic). Some ideas are logical in conception and illogical perceptually. The ideas need not be complex. Most ideas that are successful are ludicrously simple. Successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity because they seem inevitable. In terms of ideas the writer is free even to surprise herself. Ideas are discovered by intuition. No matter what form it may finally have it must begin with an idea. It is the process of conception and realization with which the writer is concerned. Once given physical reality by the writer the work is open to the perception of all, including the author. (I use the word perception to mean the apprehension of the sense data, the objective understanding of the idea, and simultaneously a subjective interpretation of both). The work of literature can be perceived only after it is completed.”
His comical but to the point article on “how to be dumb” pushes further the idea that taking inanity seriously is in itself a clever intellectual maneuver. Goldsmith states:
“I am dumb. Dumb is an ill-prepared slacker, riding on hunches and intuition. Willfully amnesiac—History, what’s that?—dumb is a tabula rasa, full of emptiness. Caring little for progress or narrative, dumb moves laterally, occasionally spiraling back in on itself. Dumb loves easy. Eschewing climaxes and crescendos, dumb favors stasis, grids, and predictable systems simply because they require less effort. Similarly, dumb favors re—recontextualization, reframing, redoing, remixing, recycling—rather than having to go through the effort of creating something from scratch. Dumb embraces the messiness of contradiction and revels in the beauty of the ridiculously obvious. Trading on the mundane and common, dumb plays a low-stakes game. Since dumb has nothing to lose, dumb owes nothing to anyone, and in that way it is free.”
And even more germane:
“There is dumb dumb and there is smart dumb. There is also smart smart. Dumb dumb is plain dumb and smart smart is plain smart. Smart dumb rejects both smart smart and dumb dumb, choosing instead to walk a tightrope between the two. Smart dumb is incisive and precise. In order to be smart dumb, you have to be really smart, but not in the smart smart way.”
It seems that silliness in art writing requires the sort of art that is devoid enough of obviousness that it can be the writer’s slate. This makes me think of Wade Guyton and his meteoric rise to darling of the art world. His appropriated inkjet “paintings” of keyboard “x” and “u” symbols, made by computers and inkjet printers, now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars and are in permanent museum collections nationwide. Guyton was quoted in a New York Times article as saying, “I never really enjoyed drawing or art classes. I would prefer to sit in front of the TV or play video games… I chose the computer because it was right there.” But he says he’s not very sophisticated when it comes to technology: “I don’t do Facebook. My Photoshop skills are rudimentary. I’m lucky to download my e-mail.” After cringing while listening to him participate in a panel discussion on conceptual painting hosted by the Frieze Foundation and chaired by art historian and critic Jan Verwoert, I started to think he is the ultimate exemplification of a slacker-surfer dude who was called to speak publicly but hadn’t read the material. At points the audience chuckled at his responses, as did Jan himself. Maybe his presentation skills have improved since that talk, but I was truly shocked that his art practice seemed to primarily consist of aimlessly throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks. I have to include some transcript from the talk, typed word for word as it was spoken:
Wade Guyton: “I was making these sculptures, um, … I wanted something really simple and immediate that would very quickly register as a sculpture, or, uh, linguistically, or sit in the space and do different things….” and “Okay, then I decided, okay, well this is kind of dumb, but, so, I felt like the “x” was becoming like this caricature, or, uh it was kind of becoming really ridiculous, um, so I was wondering, like, I’m really just typing, and I just type another letter, and the “u” seemed sufficiently abstract, and close enough on the keyboard, it didn’t change anything, really, so uh, so then I ended up using this, which ends up going through much later work……” and “All these events that happen, like the struggle with the printer, the material’s not right for the machine…”
Mr. Guyton goes on for an eternity like this, and then Jan offers, “So on the one hand you seem to identify your work or yourself with this kind of a certain drama of modernist self-reflective critique that we say, “How is it possible to make a mark or make a gesture in the face of history? What are the last possible moves to make to suggest a shift at all? And then sort of this conceptual struggle is also linked to the struggle with the machine and the possibility of sort of a failure that might come as a move…It’s almost the agony of making these last possible gestures.” Wow. Is that elucidation or extrapolation?
Mr. Verwoert then asks, “What would be the liberating dimension to this kind of struggle in the face of history?” to which Guyton replies,
“Well, I kind of feel liberated by them…uh, I guess… I also feel you know…. chained to the fucking printer too…and not knowing how you, um, do anything else…but, umm, uh, uh, let’s see…(big pause)…I mean, for me it becomes very mechanical and that kind of is attractive because I can kind of turn my brain off, and, well, and even though like they are mechanical but the printer can’t do it on it’s own, like you know you have to, like, work with it…but there is this, uhhhmmmm, I don’t know how to describe it, but its, uh …there is this space that opens up for me like, mentally, working with this kind of, ah, seemingly, uh, technological, uh, mechanical computer …I sit at my desk, I look at the computer, I move these windows around, I press print then I like think about, like, these ideas of like whether it’s a quality print, a draft print, you know….”
He rambles on a while longer. Finally Jan interjects hopefully, “Saved by the bell, in the face of history? Technology is the bell that saves?” Pause, and Guyton says, “I also don’t know what else to do…. ummm…” There is some more rambling, then Jan sums it up in a neat synopsis about reductionism. It is as though they were having two completely different conversations. This is certainly a good example of LeWitt’s point that the artist doesn’t necessarily have to understand his own art. I am not sure if Wade Guyton is smart dumb or just dumb dumb, but I do see that the subject of the art writing or critique is not connected to his process. Perhaps the blanker the better for the critic or writer. There is less subject to have to work around. About Guyton’s exhibit at the Whitney critic Jerry Saltz said, “This quasi-nostalgia gives Guyton’s work a troubling, lurking aura, implying a double-edged Romantic wish that art can again be what it once was.” Who knew?
This whole scenario reminds me of the nursery spider, Pisaura mirabilis, which presents its mate with a gift of silk-wrapped prey. While the female examines the gift, the male spends its time mating with her. If the gift is not wrapped the female just takes the gift and runs away or eats him before mating can occur. Over time this spider’s behavior has evolved such that the male is often wrapping useless husks of seeds, detritus, or even nothing at all, hoping to mate without first investing in catching prey. The males wrap their gift with so much silk that the females can’t tell what is inside, but mating is cut short as soon as the female notices deceit, resulting in fewer sperm being transferred. If the wrapping is the art writing and the mating is market success, there is no joy without the ball of silk, and what is inside the wrapped package ultimately matters but is not of primary concern. This weird evolutionary analogy is the only explanation I can fathom to explain the curious evolution of the art world to its current state of collusion between the artists, critics and curators who ultimately get the market to follow. My point is not at all that Wade Guyton’s art has no worth or that art writing is without merit, but that there is something farcical about the current extremes of the scheme. It makes me reassess my own aspirations in the world of art. I want to be part of the conversation but I don’t want to yearn to enter into a club that I don’t completely buy into, or strive to be smart dumb when I am more smart smart. Absurdity in art writing has become to me the symbol of what I don’t like in the art world, and if I am not aspiring to engage in that scenario then what scenario am I aspiring to? UPDATE: read Sept 22 comment below.