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.
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.