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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What's Signal and What's Noise?

(The title is a stolen from a song title, it's a great line in general)

Modern Fine Art tends to be spoken of largely in a language that has been dubbed by wags International Art English (IAE). It's all about dialectics and playing with spaces and so on. Any proper artist's statement is written in this stuff, and it's pretty amusing, at least to people outside the Academy. We tend to look at it and chuckle and think about how silly Art is. And it is silly; this stuff is rather silly.

To suggest that it's meaningless noise, which I am sure I have done, and which is done quite a lot, is to kind of miss the point, though. Sure, these paragraphs are ostensibly about the work, and pretty much say nothing whatsoever about the work itself. They tend to read a lot like academic-sounding fluff intended to obscure as much as to reveal. Generally, combining the writing with the work one gets the sense that the artist didn't actually have any ideas, or had perhaps one idea which has been beaten into the ground, and that the writing is mainly to obscure the fact that the artist didn't have much of an idea. More precisely, the artist's statements seem to be trying to tell us about ideas that are in the work, which ideas aren't.

I think that might well be a true analysis, but it's incomplete at best. Perhaps the artist didn't have much of an idea. That's not really the point, most artists don't seem to have much of an idea, after all. If ideas were important in Fine Art, we'd probably see a lot more of them.

A lot of modern Art strikes me as a sort of tabula rasa upon which the artist's statement writes. Consider "Human Dilations" from Roger Weiss. This is basically a bunch of nudes of more or less good looking women, taken in a bland studio setting. The women are more or less expressionless. The point, though, is that the pictures were either taken with a fisheye lens, or distorted in post. We get an enormous foot, with a tiny out of focus torso way behind. We get immensely oversized bellies, with torsos and legs receding and shrinking away. Ok, so what. I get that the photographer likes to have naked women in his studio, who doesn't?

You could write an artist's statement about how the show reveals the monster within every woman, and it would totally read. It would be immensely unpopular, but the pictures would completely work with that theme. You could write an artist's statement about how the show reveals society's view of women as monsters, or freaks. You could write an artist's statement about how the show reflects on the self-images of women. Weiss has told us, though, that the show is about letting us relate differently to the image, entirely detached from the stereotypical and hypocritical notion of beauty. Whatever, that reads, too. My point here is that the work itself appears to make no particular statement in and of itself, it's just some stuff. It's the artist's statement that tells us the intent.

Compare with, say, Lange's "Migrant Mother", which doesn't need any artist's statement at all to make a pretty strong stand. Precisely what stand it takes might be a little unclear, but to my mind that's a good thing.

To select another work that's stumbled across my consciousness in the last few months, we have Chris Burdon's "Beam Drop" installed at Inhotim. This is a bunch of rusty steel beams stood on their ends in concrete. You could call it "Rust Bouquet" if you liked, and write something about the dialectic of man and nature. Burdon instead informs us that it's anti-architecture, anti-corporate architecture.

Both of these examples, which I like to imagine I have selected at random, consist of work that is essentially a cipher, and an artist's statement which is the device by which meaning and interpretation is applied. More interestingly to me, the artist's statements are not really about the work at all, but about the artist. The work is practically irrelevant, you could plug damn near any fool thing in for the work, and the resulting total experience would be roughly the same. Weiss is a feminist who wants to destroy traditional notions of beauty (ok, whatever, you and everyone else bud) and Burdon is anti-corporate architecture (hey, me too).

Part of what seems to be going on here is reification of the silly notion that the artist is visible in the work. It is an oft-repeated, in this modern age, adage that the artist is somehow visible in the Art, that the Art is on some level a portrait of the Artist. A few minutes careful thought will tell you that this is utter nonsense. However, in this modern era, the artist's statement actually does this to some extent. Of course we don't have any notion of who the artist is, really, but we do get some text in which the artist gets to make a little marketing pitch for themselves. We learn, not about the artist, but what the artist wants us to think about the artist. This is quite a lot like a self-portrait.

This stuff isn't content free, it's just sort of allegorical, sort of poetic. On the surface it's making an effort to describe how one ought to think about, feel about, experience, the work. There's some sort of recognition that if the work's any damn good, you're not going to be able to summarize it in a few lines of text. This begs the question of why attach text at all, which circles back around to talking about the artist, fluffing up a pretty small idea into something bigger, and social signaling.

The text allows basically unoriginal work to become, in a more or less real sense, new and original work. If you simply copied an Ansel Adams photograph, it wouldn't be new. The picture is there, we react to it in the same way, the little mental pas de deux of viewer with the piece will unfold in pretty much the same way as the original.

Now add some text, perhaps something about re-contextualizing the space of nature in the context of the silver gelatin print to play with the dialectic of the machine and nature, and the dance is different. Now the sufficiently "Educated" viewer is suddenly thinking about cameras and chemicals, or something. To the extent that Art exists in the dance between the work and the viewer, we've got something new here. To the extent that Art exists purely in the work, though, not so much.

What's signal, and what's noise? Well, there's a lot of noise in the text. International Art English contains a great deal of filler text which serves more or less to set the tone. Still, there's a lot of signal in there, once you've got the context established. In fact, when you start unpacking it, there's a tremendous amount of signal. 300 words of this stuff will paint a little picture of the artist, as well as tell us how we ought to react to some piece or show, as well as make us feel as if we're part of the in crowd. That's quite a lot of work for a handful of sentences that are mostly meaningless filler.

Still, I got to wonder, how much of it is really useful or interesting?

1 comment:

  1. I was browsing the "other" place today and saw a link to your blog. I had a link to it before, but my feeder crashed and I lost it ... so I am glad to find it again.

    If you read several artists statements in a row, they become almost comical and you begin to wonder if it's a joke!

    I think much of it results from the commodification of art through the university, which has become tied to the gallery and even to the museum as career options for the graduate. Fine Art degrees are very limited in their job potential. The majority of art students will have to go on for the MFA and into teaching if they want a career in the arts. A professorship, a career in arts administration, as a curator, or an editor for an arts magazine, is their best chance at making a living. The great majority of MFA grads will not make a living from their paintings, sculptures, photographs, etc. They will have to go into a related field.

    My theory is that the artists statement is also as much about their ability to teach and discuss the arts in an academic setting as it is about the art. Perhaps this is why the statements seem to be more about the artist than the art.