Yesterday, Michael Fuerst of Urbana, Illinois wrote, “We all receive written material and invitations to art lectures. A lot of this material seems to be gibberish. Can you explain the purpose of it? One invitation to a lecture at the University of Illinois included the line, ‘a set of socially shared meanings the artist chooses to make visible in the space of art.’ What does this mean?”
Thanks, Michael. That’s the long way of saying the artist lets people look at his stuff. You’ll notice that my interpretation is particularly dull and unimpressive. Fact is, some folks have a need to make things sound more important than they are.
If critics and educators always told it the way it is and cut out the gibberish, they’d be out of a job.
Terms like “collaborative gesture,” “foregrounding the power of context,” and “insisting on the metapoint” have burned their way into the sophomoric vocabulary of the merely educated. Unless pressed, working artists seldom use these sorts of terms.
It’s all about obfuscation. Just so I don’t fall into the same trap with a big word, obfuscation means “covering up clarity.” The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “to obscure, stupefy and bewilder.” The human mind has determined that when a proposition is shaky, a certain amount of mumbo-jumbo is required to make it more acceptable. Some religions, for example, rely on whole other languages that no one but a chosen few can understand. Throughout history, this ruse has been the bastion of charlatans and it’s still on the tongues of the high priests of art.
Obfuscation is an accepted way to influence otherwise bright people who don’t have the time or inclination to figure things out for themselves. Bright people, because they generally obfuscate in their own way, tend to buy into the ruse — wink, wink.
Talking about visual art is difficult to do. Gibberish is a popular convention that has self-fulfilling benefits. Art that by its nature is confusing is bought by confused people who willingly submit to some form of verbal confusion. “Significant” and “important” art is magnified by the art of gibberish. Cut out the art of gibberish and many artists would also be out of a job.
PS: “Talking about art is like trying to French kiss over the telephone.” (Terry Allen)
Esoterica: In these letters I have been known to fall into unacceptable gibberish, and I’m generally informed by return mail. Thank you. It’s my firm belief that most of what we artists need and cherish can best be told in plain language. “Short words are best,” said Winston Churchill, “and the old words when short are best of all.” And when the sublime cannot be explained we have the option of silence. William S. Burroughs observed that “Modern man has lost the option of silence.” I think just about but not quite. We artists are living proof that human creativity evolves in relative silence. But you can rest assured there will always be those who come to fill the void. “Taurus cacas exit cerebella,” said Kjerkius Gennius (36 BC) “B.S. baffles brains.”
Do pictures need words?
by Jack Richardson, Onancock, VA, USA
As a young art student 45 years ago trying to get through a copy of Art News or some such gibberish, it occurred to me that I was not fit to be an artist because I couldn’t understand a thing they were saying. With that I proceeded to be just a painter of pictures, do my thing, and the hell with the rest of the world. I continue to paint, almost daily, and enjoy my small world. A picture says a thousand words, it is said.
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Are they afraid of ‘play’?
by Ernst Lurker, East Hampton, NY, USA
A prime example of this syndrome is the art form of PlayArt. I’m often puzzled why so many peoplenin the art world have the need to circumscribe the term “play,” in particular in conjunction with art. In the introduction of this PlayArt site I wrote: PlayArt is frequently labeled by different names such as “interactive,” “participatory,” “experiential,” “relational,” “performance” art, etc. These are pseudo-scientific expressions, pretentious, and symptomatic of the pathological fear of play by our cultural elite. Do these individuals fear they will not be taken “seriously” if they use the term “play” in connection with art? For Alexander Calder and many others, these big words are serious misnomers.
A kind of poetry
by Bobbo Goldberg, Orlando, FL, USA
Oh, dear. You know, language can be an art form, too, and it’s not all cognitive simplicity. I’d certainly hesitate before defining any complex notion or obscure reference as obfuscation, which is purposeful, evasive distortion of the facts. We have plenty of opportunity between now and November to see that obfuscation itself can be highly creative albeit contemptible and with no doubt as to its purpose.
I have to admit that I see plenty of “modern” art and “modern” photography that, to my eye, seems like a lot of BS and I’ve taken a year of Art History with a most inspiring and exacting professor, one Kenneth Bare. He had a way of unobfuscating that would make your eyes go around and around. But having said that, there are some concepts that, honestly and honorably, require some verbal gymnastics to even try to communicate. Anything that points to the subconscious, for example, or to dream symbolism, or attempts to discuss, say, surrealism or even dada, may best be represented by seemingly contortionistic passages, whose authors have no intention to obscure clarity. Rather, it is poetry of a kind, as a good abstract can be.
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by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA
Observe this Painting to our right:
Every brushstroke crisply deft.
Its crypto continuity
restrains the ambiguity,
and pure aesthetic form
that culminates the norm
of cultural gratuity
in socialized vacuity.
The Artist cannot be concerned
with anything she ever learned
of figure, form, or gravity,
perspective, or anatomy. Her attitude is sunny:
She hopes to make some money!
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by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA
No, no, please don’t give credence to the stereotype that all art talk is “gibberish”! Can’t we just accept the fact that we all can’t understand everything? The minute something seems too dense and obfuscated it is so much easier to throw up our hands and say that is all mumbo jumbo BS instead of taking the time to really think about it. I used to be the same way until I was forced to speak and think more specifically about my work and increase my verbal vocabulary in the same way that artists need to increase their visual vocabulary. I learned not to condemn what I didn’t understand because often, a few months/years later, I was struck by how ignorant I really was at the time I read it and when the light finally dawned that ignorance felt uncomfortably exposed! Some artists are trying to explore and express things other than formal issues of light, color, composition, etc. They are thinking of things like “socially shared meaning.” That is an abstract non-visual idea the artist is trying to give, a visual interpretation, and the words help her better understand her goal. That is different than painting a concrete subject. Some viewers actually enjoy this intellectual component; art can be something to think about as well as look at. No, it isn’t the “type” of art that excites a lot of peoplesome people want things spelled out more clearly, they want to know exactly what they are looking at. That is okay too. Art can be different things for different artists and viewers, as I have attempted to hammer down in previous responses. At one extreme it can be decoration or, at the other, it can have a complex string of carefully chosen words (that may appear gibberish to some) to help us understand an intellectual component that went into the work. Sometimes we see a movie for entertainment, sometimes we see one that makes us think about life differently. It is the same with art because it is all art. Lest it be said I don’t have a sense of humor, if you really want legit art gibberish, you might like this link.
(RG note) Thanks, Mary. And thanks to everyone who sent in a link to the ‘Phrase Generator.’ It’s a hoot.
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Just what is the avant-garde?
by Vickie Reynolds, Grand Rapids MI, USA
Thank you so much for tearing at the seams of that sacred cow! In art school, it took me a while to realize that “art speak” sometimes baffled me, not so much because I lacked the sort of spiritual depth necessary to be truly creative, but that it actually is a self-perpetuating, self-preserving, highly-polished method of B.S. to (sometimes) make naive work appear grandiose and — a word that continues to make me cringeavant-garde. I’ve always tried to explain my own work in plain words, however poetic they may sometimes become, but plain. People might still raise their eyebrows and wonder, “Really?” But I try to be honest and plain-speaking when there is a story behind any given work I produce.
And NOW that you’ve got me on a roll! When I am at a regional exhibit somewhere and view the juror’s second place entry which is a dirty mattress from Goodwill attached to the wall, with blue paint splattered on it and a bright beach ball embeddedand, naturally, it is Untitledand the juror explains his reasons for being totally mesmerized and drawn to this “piece” and uses the word avant-garde, I want to ask him if he ever heard of Marcel Duchamp and others who sort of started avant-garde nearly one hundred years ago with assemblages stuck on walls. Those crazy artists really “got a conversation going!” And it was great, and I like to see art that is intriguing as much as the next guy; but don’t tell me that a mattress on a wall is avant-garde or I may throw something hard at you. And, frankly, don’t give it Second Place just because it “created a conversation.”
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Not making this stuff up
by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA
I am more amused than puzzled by the opaque writings of the art world. Oh, to learn how to speak artspeak with a straight face in the correct situation, say in a gallery, chatting to a serious collector: “After what could easily be an awkward face-off between the artist’s self-reflexive subject and the viewer’s awareness of its purely pre-textual role, the work alights without fail on the side of refinement and tact.” (Robert Pincus-Witten, Artforum March 2012). Without words, art magazines would be forced to just show images, and, trust me, some of these images are even more opaque and obfuscated than the writing. I’ve walked into many a gallery to be faced with collections of plumbing detritus, lovingly curated, or perhaps beautifully framed arrangements of blurry B & W photocopies of blank walls. With relief, my eyes alight on the wall text, hoping for profound explanations to relieve me of my unsophisticated provincialism: “deploying media contra medium-specificity, and through repetition hacking the loop of the “same” to leak the extremity of difference.” (Bruce Hainley, ArtForum). I’m not making this stuff up.
I understand that art writers have to make a living and art critics need to say a few words to explain their attraction to certain works in order to fill up spaces in the art magazines which even I (yes, reader, I follow their every word, hoping to crack the master code and figure out how I, too, can play with the big boys at the zillionaire art fairs) attempt to read. Some of it I actually “get” and out of those, there are images, videos, installations, photos and wall texts that I actually like, but it’s a pitiful fraction of the whole. But, hey, I’m learning! Refusing to give it all up as rubbish, I subscribe to contemporary art magazines and go to gallery shows. It’s not entirely pleasurable, and it’s usually head-scratchingly puzzling, but every once in awhile I encounter a sublime exhibition/ performance/ installation and leave the gallery with my mind re-charged and bursting with ideas. More often than not, I attended that particular gallery/museum show because I read about it from some wordy art critic. As artists, we really need to have writers to come to our exhibitions and say a few words regarding our work, however complex and confusing those words are. If we provide clear Artist’s Statements in our press release materials to the gallery, that may help.
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A single, indistinct entity
by Carolyn Edlund, Poughkeepsie, NY, USA
Attending the reception for a fellow artist, I chanced to meet another artist, familiar only by name, not by the artist’s work. His website does nothing short of confound the visitor; it isn’t clear whether the product of his artistic endeavor is sculpture, painting, or photography. Here are excerpts from the artist’s statement:
“My enterprise is elliptical and parallel, with varying episodes of linearity …The effort to fill it with meaning, to deal with its relentlessness and to periodically supersede its insistence with the experience of an infinite presence, an infinite presence that could traverse ten minutes or five hours at a stretch …One of my aims is to close the distance between thinking, looking and making, to the point where it is hard to tell the difference.”
And there, in the final sentence is an admission to obfuscation. Creation, observation, and contemplation are said to meld to a single indistinct entity that is his art. ‘Be impressed,’ he says, through prattle meant to conflate the value of the art and the stature of the artist.
For me, the babble only increases the distance I’ll keep between myself and his art!
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oil painting 12 x 9 inches by Judy Maurer, Gold Canyon, AZ, USA
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Susan-Rose Slatkoff of Victoria, B.C., Canada, who wrote, “There’s nothing so off-putting as pompous posturing with a polysyllabic vocabulary (Translation: showing off with big words).”
And also >Ralph Hislop who wrote, “Indeed, there are those who do appear to become inebriated with the eloquence of their own verbosity.”
And also Dr. Rhys Johansen who wrote, “They have to do it because the cutting edge is not so sharp anymore.” And also about 25 people who wrote a variation of “So here’s old Kjerkius Gennius, (36 BC) again. He really knows his taurus cacas.”
Enjoy the past comments below for The purpose of gibberish…