Art, Meaning, and Language; Part 1

29 04 2011

Art education at a university level is based as much on language as it is on visual art.  In fact, I would make the argument that it is based primarily on language.  Undergraduate students are subject to verbal critiques as final examinations for their works.  Often, they are also writing artist’s statements to go along with those works and surely are expected to be able to verbally explain the formal considerations as well as the content behind the work.  Graduate students go through a much more rigorous critique process—usually with a panel of graduate professors critiquing their work or, in some cases, the entire graduate faculty.  Written theses have become increasingly common requirements for MFAs as well, adding to the written justification, explanation, and historical placement of the work that must be explained by the artist.

Daniel Clowes, from Eightball 7, 1991.

For me, this has become a somewhat futile and redundant process.  Students are trained to begin with an idea.  They then translate that idea from words to visual signs.  In the end, they find themselves translating the signs back into words to explain the work during the critique.  My problem with this is that it leads to the kind of confusion you get with bad translations.

Once outside of school, artists continue to have this focus on meaning and content that must be translated into language to be understood.  This is apparent in the ubiquity of the “Artist’s Statement” (when was the last time you walked into a gallery that didn’t have one on display or at least available for view?) and the popularity of the Visiting Artist.

In his book, Art Subjects:  Making Artists in the American University, Howard Singerman argues that it is precisely the reliance on language that has produced the need for the Visiting Artist.  The work that is encouraged in Art Schools and university art departments is work that does not lend itself well to the immediate art market, and therefore needs some sort of alternative, non-commercial space in which to be displayed, explained, and appreciated.  Hence, the artist needs to travel with the work–sometimes to install it as in installation art, or to be the work itself, as in performance art–and engage an audience by “talking the work into existence.”

The root of the focus on language is the idea that a work of art has to mean something.  And by “meaning” we focus on that which can be explained in words.  Art, as taught in the university, is not about creating something ineffable like “beauty” or “the sublime.”  Certainly, students attempt to make art dealing with both, but end up trying to explain them into the work rather than let the work have those effects on the viewer on its own.

If meaning is the focus of art, and meaning is something that has to have the ability to be explained in language, then why go through the process of making art objects at all?  Sometimes I wonder if painters or sculptors focused on content only paint or sculpt due to the convention that they identify themselves as painters or sculptors.  For my part, I was so enamored with meaning as a student that I abandoned image-making altogether, choosing instead to make language the center of my work in performance, video, and performance poetry.

Which brings me to my purpose in starting this blog.  Even in performance poetry, language is not the sole container of meaning—and I find myself explaining (if only to myself) the reasons for different inflections or gestures.  But blogging is more focused in its use of language as a text-based form of communication.  In this format, I am looking at blogging as a form of conceptual art.

If you read books attempting to summarize postmodernism published in the mid- to late-nineties, there is typically more than one mention of “virtual reality,” bringing to mind images of people in goggles and gloves attached to wires, living in some sort of Johnny Mnemonic alternate world.  Virtual reality is here, but not in that format.  It’s not a completely immersed sensory experience like The Matrix.  It’s the text-based hyperreality of facebook.  It’s the avatar-and-text-based interactions that take place in Second Life and online games.  And it’s the text-driven ideas exchanged through blog posts and comments on them.

Why is Keanu the star of so many movies about virtual realities? And why have those movies proven to be so off-the-mark?

I will continue to address and expand on these ideas in later entries.  Allan Kaprow thought of art as a series of “meaning-making interactions.”  This is one way to engage in that with a large group of people, effectively, without needing to translate from idea to image and back to idea.

What if I had only a vague idea about “art” but didn’t know the conventions that told me when I was in its presence or was making it?  What if I were digging a hole—would that be art?  What if I didn’t know about audiences and publicity?  What if I were to just go shopping?  Would that not be art?  What if I didn’t realize that art happened at certain times and in certain places?  What if I were to lie awake imagining things in bed at 4am?  Would that be the wrong place and the wrong time for art?  What if I weren’t aware that art is considered more marvelous than life?  What if I didn’t know an artist was meant to “create” art?  What if I were to think art was just paying attention?  What if I were to forget to think about art constantly?  Could I still make, do, engage in art?  Would I be doing something else?  Would that be okay?

 – Allan Kaprow, “The Real Experiment,” 1983

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