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Should Artists Have to Talk About Their Work?

Matthew Barney isn’t very good at talking about his work—he’s almost willfully dull, in fact. And he went to Yale. But he’s Matthew Barney, so there it is.

Several years ago, a well-known international artist gave a talk at at a major Dallas museum about his work. It was in a big auditorium and well-attended, and it seemed that the people in the first four or five rows were there to be dazzled. Others of us in the audience, especially some artists in the group, were a harder sell—not entirely convinced about his work—but there to hear his side of it.

The artist had the swagger and projection of an entrepreneur at a venture capital pitch meeting. His machine-gun paced, Wikipedia-fied version of art history and how it related to his work was rehearsed and charming. (Clearly I am not writing about Matthew Barney, pictured above.) The museum members in the front rows beamed up at him; artists can sell themselves to those who want to believe. But a few of us elsewhere in the room listened to him with increasing fatigue.

By saying everything under the sun, he wasn’t saying anything with any real traction about his work or where it came from, which made us suspect that his entire career was a bit of a gimmick. It was increasingly clear to some of us that he made work that looked cool—i.e. design—then in hindsight came up with a pitch to make people believe there was something profound in it. Toward the end of his talk, it was all we could do to not cough-yell “bullshit!” under our breath, Top Gun-style. (We did not). But really, I would bet that 97% of the audience bought it.

(I am not going to name the artist other than to say it’s not Liam Gillick. The way he talks about the work is his work, mostly. Which is totally fine.)

An artist’s ability to give a Big Talk has been part of the job of the professional artist for years. There are a lot of ways an artist can shape this talk—this overview of his work—or willfully avoid shaping it, even as a near-affectation. But when did we decide that artists have to be able to talk—preferably abstractly and rationally (and magnetically)—about their work in order to justify the work’s value, or its existence? Woe be to the authentic artist who started making visual art because that was the way they could actually communicate with the world, and that language leaves them a little stranded.

This demand on artists-as-performers has attracted would-be artists who don’t make art so much as they’ve found a system they can game. At this point, all the beaten-to-death art tropes lend themselves to a kind of Ikea version of ‘art’-making that’s digestible, art-fair ready, and is really just a kind of design. This work may not be selling as briskly as it was a few years ago, but the MFA programs are still flooded with kids who are quite astonishingly and confidently compelled to not only verbally ‘deconstruct’ their own work, but also to make work that’s pre-deconstructed for this purpose—bits and pieces of other artists’ original ideas. I’m not referring to time-honored appropriation or homage or referencing. I’m pointing out a kind of nascent bubble careerism where if everything you make is comfortably familiar and everything you say is right on, you may just step into the market. In this era, talking the talk—self branding—is a big part of that game. And that alone may be enough to turn off a promising artist who doesn’t want to play that game.

Good artists can inadvertently unsell themselves by attempting the confident and polished ‘performance’ when they would have been better off grunting for an hour. I’ve watched audience members stroll out of evening lectures at the Fort Worth Modern pretty disillusioned by what an artist had to say about the work. Prior to the evening, these artists’ work maybe seemed ineffable or magically rock-and-roll, but after the talk the work suddenly looks flat-footed, or didactic, or too obvious. Language was the beast that got in the way.

Martin Creed side-steps conventional artist talks.

This is when a young artist who’s worried about never having Liam Gillick’s verbal chops—or Glenn Ligon’s, or Kara Walker’s, or Richard Wentworth’s—might want to look to artists like Martin Creed, or Mark Grotjahn, or Isa Genzken, who don’t interview smoothly but are doing just fine, career-wise. One of my favorite artists in Texas is so paralyzed by giving talks that his social anxiety, when he does succumb to giving a rare one, leads to a kind of transcendent moment for the audience, like watching a rare albino tiger pacing silently and menacingly behind glass. People are transfixed, and the artist’s work’s mystique is intact because of it.

But many MFA programs are premised on peer and advisor committee critiques that can feel like kangaroo trials and may work to destroy a promising but inarticulate student artist. I’ve worked in these rooms, and watched it happen in real time. I don’t think making students learn to talk about their work is inherently useless or evil; I think it can help them find coherence where there might not have been before. But the knives-out agendas and egos of faculty (often battling one another) and fellow students isn’t creating a real-world exercise for an artist who’s either really bad or really good.

On the other hand, the most gifted student with the most original ideas and the most confidence in the work may shrug off attacks, and end up shaping that Noble Savage or Savant or Cantankerous Eccentric persona that acts as an effective extension of the work. (This tactic doesn’t work unless the work is undeniable; as Dave Hickey once said, “That artist isn’t good enough to be such an asshole.”) And there’s still a risk—an increasing one in this social-media age—that an artist’s antisocial approach will ultimately limit his reach, especially as fewer dealers are in a position to do the heavy lifting of interpreting and communicating the work on behalf of their artists.

The promising artist who has some good ideas and could use some space for trial and error to figure things out isn’t always given the time to find workarounds, and you’d think this is what grad school should offer. A good, still-young artist I know with a growing career and an instinctive distaste for overly analyzing her highly instinctive work recently confessed to me that during her grad-school years, she self-limited her range and even devolved into rank academia (the new sort), in order to get through critiques with her professors and fellow students—to convince them she was the ‘right kind’ of artist and thinker. She was getting her MFA in order to land a tenure-track job (which she now has) and didn’t mind bullshitting her way through grad school in order to reduce friction. As soon as she was out of school, she went back to making the work she wanted to make, and talking about it as little as possible.

 

also by Christina Rees
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31 Responses

    1. MicheleBriggs (Lyons)

      As a high school art teacher I hated having to make my students justify their work and so I quit as an artist I also hate having to talk crap especially when every competition requires artist statements my work developed and talks to to me it is a work the has my soul embed into it why should I explain my personal conversAtion the finished work should speak for itself you either appreciate it or you don’t . Look at Van Gogh he doesn’t have to explain or justify . Too many fake artists are held up as masters now they just talk the talk bad.
      You’d sincerely Michele L

      Michele Briggs5054@gmail.com

  1. Great read and question. I have spent entire evenings on this topic over many beers with many of my peers.
    A good artist should be able to unleash a novels worth of words in a single image, void from the aid of text and words.
    I truly enjoy talking about what an individual piece of my work means to me and why and how I made it. However, I have observed and been advised a “only speak when spoken to” rule of thumb unfortunately seems to be most preferred.

  2. Trying again, I hate talking about my work. I become a socially inept third grader. Painters are not performers. If people want to be intertained they should go to performance art. So now you see it a third grader, I am going to paint.

  3. Beth Secor

    I think that yes, artist should be able to speak about their work. I taught a special topics class this semester in which I had the students first write a proposal on what kind of series that would create for the semester, had them attend an artist talk, write rough drafts and revisions of their own artist statement and then do an artist talk about the work they created during the semester. Doing all of this made them more conscious and aware of what their work was about, whether it be focused on formal , expressive, narrative or societal issues. More than one student told me that the experience of having to clearly articulate what it was they were doing made them a better artist.

  4. Michael Galbreth

    I recommend riding in on a pony while sipping martinis accompanied by an accordionist. That’s when Kazoo the Orange Dragon begins the audience activation portion using fireworks and toilet paper. Scantily clad women (and/or men) help pawn your swag most effectively thereby garnering some quick cash for more drinks later. Show your generosity by ordering pizza to be delivered and shared with everyone, loaves and fishes style. Door prizes prove to everyone that you put your money where your mouth is. When all else fails, show off your golfing skills by whacking bags of white bread out into the crowd. That always gets ’em going.
    Best by test.
    http://www.theartguys.com/IMAGES/News/UT_lecture_01.jpg

    1. You two (The Art Guys) gave the best “art lecture” EVER at the Modern of Fort Worth with rolling beer bottles and “models”. You have to have fun!

  5. I agree with Christina, in other words, let me put it this way: Christina, would you give us a talk about what you just said in this article and why you said it? Make it entertaining, meaningful and above all “sellable”. Ah! There is no business like show business .

  6. Ryder

    The more art talks I give the more conflicted the process becomes: I am selling myself, with the art as a proxy. My ideas and cited sources act as affirmations of academic seriousness, enhancing the prospect that I am a good investment, someone who has bought in. However, I have been told about my art “your intentions don’t matter,” so why should I reveal them? ~ The sharing of ideas and self feels like a trap with catastrophically more downside than potential benefit.

  7. I haven’t even read this entire article, but I’m already bothered about one term you keep using without seeming to have an understanding of it: design. You keep using the word design as a term that is synonymous with the idea of a-conceptual aesthetics divorced from meaning. In reality the word “design” in no way describes this. Actual design, while very different from fine art in both intention and conception is actually incredibly conceptual. The difference is that it stems from a collaboration with a client as opposed to being the designers’ personal contention. Anyway, this just bothers me, so I thought I would point it out. It’s just a misnomer that for me discredits the rest of the article before I have read 3 paragraphs. Funny enough though, I used to sling the term around as well before I studied design (I have masters in both disciplines), so I understand where the idea is coming from. My two cents.

  8. Talking about one’s own work is sometimes impossible if the work comes from a place of non-language. That’s why it’s visual and not linguistic. I do say I admire those who can get up in front of an audience and piece together a semblance of thought and sentence with punctuation and presence when describing their practice, but I do agree that often some artists come off as polished TED talk presentations with visual aids and bells and whistles and strategic pauses for emotional impact. I love hearing about another artist’s work because for me it often sheds a small light on work that I haven’t a clue about what they are attempting to do. So for that a talk is good. But I do wonder how much it really matters to the audience or a patron and how much of it has become yet another reason to gather and socialize around a cultural event. We don’t go to bars or each others studios and drink and discuss art anymore (well some of y’all might- I don’t know), we instead go to artists talks where we are presented information and see our artistic compatriots and can ask polite questions… Personally I am getting to an attitude of if we have to do a dog and pony show to explain what the fuck I am doing and what the hell is behind my work then I’m either doing things completely right or completely wrong. But Christina- I’m on board with you here.

  9. wish I knew who the artist was in the third paragraph, several guesses come to mind.
    Wealthy; probably yes, inventive probably not, pretty work probably; … many studio assistants..probably…..Ditzy and featherlike yes. Fondling the wealthy and influential more than likely…. Desire to have a cocktail with….never. shit load of them out there with several ringleaders. go ahead and yell “bullshit”

  10. Jean Roelke

    Totally agree! Thanks for writing this. I’m so sick of art as a luxury commodity and artists as a chorus for wealthy collectors who want to exhibit their ownership of status symbols.

  11. Helen Altman

    Hello all….I’m paying someone (not nearly enough!) to speak about my work at my opening at Moody Gallery in Houston in May. Caleb Bell has visited my studio many times and seems to be able to pick the best works I’ve ever made to include in shows… and he does this all without making me feel small or horrible for the behavior of my dogs or the dirtiness of my home/studio or my window AC units. In other words, I trust him to speak about my work better than I can. I don’t think he’ll speak better than work itself, but he’ll certainly speak better than me, and do so without crying…I hope.

  12. The best way to kill potential art sale is talk about your art to a client at a gallery. The less they know about the work and technique, the better off you are.

  13. I agree with Ms. Secor, thinking about and talking about their work helps artists figure out what the hell they are doing, and I appreciate a well thought out, coherent artist talk that leaves me with a better understanding of an artist’s work and an idea of what inspired it. And call me a Pollyanna but I like artist talks to be honest and heartfelt without using a bunch of jargon and ten dollar words, unless of course that’s what inspired their work. Artists also shouldn’t be expected to be slick performers, many of them, myself included, are introverts and just want to hide out in the studio, but they do need to at least think of what they are going to say ahead of time. You know, like so, like, this work, like, so I don’t know, I’ve just been working on this, and you know, so, yeah. You get the picture.

  14. “Words are a concealment”………I have sat through many a great artist giving a painfully awkward presentation and far too many more mediocre individuals representing their third rate creations with the enthusiasm and energy of the most ardent television evangelist and / or master salesperson……..In the end it should be the work that actually matters…not the hype………but recorded representation either verbal or in written or other media form may be the key to the works surviving the passage of time its flights of fashion…

  15. howard sherman

    In most cases, the clearer one speaks about the work, the clearer one thinks about it. The clearer one thinks about it, the clear one tends to execute it. This article alludes to the insincere and the inarticulate, mentioning problems with the system and politics within bureaucracies. A great topic for an article would be the behavior of the MFA factory and the art market and how that could be changed.

  16. #1 Glasstire Fan (duh)

    Convenient that the art writer wants artists to talk less about their work… 😉

    But in all seriousness, this article hits home. And I’m one of those artists who is probably dealing in the BS “design” (meaning, “hotel art but an original so it’s safe for rich people to buy to affirm their good taste”) realm, and I’m totally at home in academia, but YES- the second I finished my MFA I started making work that was more interesting, at least to me. The funny thing is, it’s “safer” work, on nice, small panels. Not those stupid, slouching-off-the-wall-to-talk-about-what-painting-IS-because-I’m-a-serious-grad-student type things I was doing. I’m just painting. About stuff I want to, without rationalizing it. I guess I can thank having hardly any mental space to overanalyze what I’m doing and am just scrambling to do it, because of baby, job, etc.

    This article is a good reminder to artists to just make good work. But also a sort of coal-mine-canary to the de-authenticating of what it is to do something. Tangental, but this article reminds me of something I just read about #vanlife (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/24/vanlife-the-bohemian-social-media-movement). Writing that chills me a bit.

    Thank you, Christina, you are an inspiration of what it is to be concise, if not in a tidy package, when it comes to talking about art. 🙂

  17. Helen Altman

    I love Love LOVE tidy packages…I wish I remembered Christina… I believe I read somewhere that she was in one of my design classes at UNT… but sadly… I don’t her… I do remember that I had a female student once offer me a sexual encounter, drugs and/or cash for a passing grade in a freshman design class. I also had a student make a bomb.I thought it was a smashing success and he received an ‘A’ on that particular project. I found out a good bit later that he was arrested for stealing the actual lights off a parked police car. I hope he is doing well all these years later. I hope he isn’t an artist. Who will ever know these stories? I wasn’t suited for teaching.

  18. Robert Pena Jr.

    Chris Burden 4 comments
    Barkley Hendricks 0
    Corrina Mehiel 0 comments
    Glenn Obrien 0 comments
    John Berger 1 comments
    Tony Feher 0 comments
    Ellsworth Kelly 0 comments
    Vito Acconci 0 comments
    Guys Kemp 0 comments
    Inane Artist Talks 22 comments (so far)

    Fucking seriously? Wow … (slashing my wrists to the bone, No – I don’t need help, I got it)

  19. claude montes

    According to BFA artist / college professor, Kerry James Marshall: “The MFA program is a scam”. He goes on to say that “Kryspy Kreme doughnuts are sugar and air” , I must add: fried in a pool of Hot Oil. The top ten richest people are all college dropouts; a Jean-Michel Basquiat graffiti painting just sold for $110 million …he was a High School dropout.

  20. Artists often talk about their work because no one else is. We need more critics like Christina Rees to respond to exhibitions and help the public form a feeling for the results of long years of artistic struggle in a silent (except for the books and music) studio. Writing constructive criticism is difficult and very much appreciated by the public. The public just wants to know more about how art comes into being, and (in my experience) truly responds to unaffected and unpretentious efforts to do just that.

  21. JESmith

    Perhaps the biggest cause for the requirement of the Artist Talk, is that much of today’s art is made in the age of the internet posting of minutiae and intimacy to strangers– where nothing is private, everything is expected to be revealed, and self hype supersedes whether the work as any value. More importantly, today’s standard is that everyone is ok, everything is equal–because there is no universal sense of value and a great lack of the artist self editorializing. How can you edit your quality when a retrospective happens by age 35? For better or worse, the Salon had a system of what was ‘value’ based on art, not the artist. And while the Salon as “credibility” seems stilted today, perhaps it reveals another truth—that like 90% of the old salon artists who are lost to obscurity, today’s work probably will obtain the same 10% of works with lasting relevance. As one cartoon (sadly found online) said: ” I think the work is good, but I’ll have to wait until I read the artist resume and hear the artist talk to be sure” .

  22. John Hovig

    Beth Secor, Howard Sherman and Barnaby Fitzgerald have it right, right, and right.

    Having a studio in a building with frequent public open houses has forced me to talk about my work whether I wanted to or not (not to mention to curate it more precisely), and in the past 14 months of trying to explain it to strangers, I have learned far more about my own work than I did during the previous 5 or 6 years that I was creating it.

    When I tell people the “story” of my work, and how one body of my seemingly-disjointed practice relates to another body, they look at me like, “well duh, of course, that’s so obvious,” but I’m like, “it took me ten years to actually figure that out!!!!”

    And to Barnaby’s point: I can’t tell you how many visitors walk into my studio in confusion, but when I catch up to them and talk to them, ever so briefly, you can actually see the lightbulbs going off.

    Talking about one’s work is important all the way around.

  23. John Hovig

    Christina,

    After re-reading your article in light of the ensuing discussion, I wonder if your argument is against the need to talk, or agains the audience(s) they are required to address.

    All of us in the “yes we do” camp seem to be keying off your opinion that artists should be given space to work out their ideas. Maybe your argument is not that artists shouldn’t be expected to talk, but that artists should be somehow held to a more scrutable standard.

    I’m having a hard time fleshing out my thoughts on this.

    I came to the arts from another industry, and gave myself the space to work out my ideas to both the audience I wanted to reach (fine art connaisseurs) and the audience I was forced to face every week (the ones with the big walls over the sofas). I never had a thesis committee or a series of over-fashionable trustees rating me. So I can’t really respond to the argument(s) I think you’re trying to make.

    But I have a feeling the audience and the prevailing standard is the problem more so than the need for self-understanding and expression. Sorry to ramble….

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