Friday, February 1, 2008

Back from VSC

Visiting with 25 or so artists last week at the Vermont Studio Center, I found that part of my job there--besides eating as much bread, butter, and dessert as possible--was to poke holes in some closely-held art world tenets:

Artworks must be consistent for a final review, to show a dealer, or for an exhibition. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. I’m not sure where this reverence for sameness came from. Even though its usefulness has been flagrantly disproven by two of the most famous artists of our time, Louise Bourgeois and Gerhard Richter, it persists among young artists who are afraid to experiment because their job, as they see it, is to produce a “body of work” with a singular character. Sometimes I have to remind them that what looks like a big difference to the artist is negligible to the viewer, and that their work is unified simply by being theirs. But even if the leaps were huge, so what? While I’ve never been to an exhibition where observers complained that the work was too diverse, I’ve been to plenty where it was criticized for being too similar.

You have to have a concept in mind—and be able to articulate it—before you can start working. This belief stops many people from making art before they even begin. Ideas come from the process, not the other way around. It’s about starting somewhere, anywhere, and seeing where it leads. The starting point can be a concept, but as such it’s just another tool, a means to the end. If you know the outcome before you do the work, why bother?

After it’s finished, the artist should be able to explain what the work is about and why he/she did it. I have to admit that I had no idea what my work meant or could mean—to me or anyone—until I read the reviews. And while other people have contributed many interpretations, all of which feel valid, if you ask me what my current work is about I really have no clue. Where did it come from? I don’t know; it just happened. In his New York Times obituary Roy Lichtenstein was quoted as saying “I don’t think artists like myself have the faintest idea what we’re doing…”

When I’m king, along with regulating how early in the season stores can start flogging for Christmas and changing the term “ice pellets” back to “sleet,” I’m going to outlaw artist’s statements.


Tracy Helgeson said...

Hi Carol, I am off to VSC tomorrow and wish I could have had a chance to hear your talk. I like what you have written about artists being able to, or not able to talk about their work. I never really know what to say about mine, and mostly end up discussing what others have said about it. I just do the painting!

And about the concept-I am going through that too. i plan to focus on figurative work but am not sure what I want to say with that. I think the process will help me out with that, like it did with the landscapes.

Very timely to hear this-thanks!

joan said...

I don't agree with you on this one. I think students need to be somewhat articulate about what they're doing. It's hard to speak and write about ones work when it's a visual art form but necessary even if one never gets to the core of the matter. God forbid if we just relied on critics to tell us what we're about! A horrifying thought! As far as I know, part of the role of the teacher is to help students figure out what they're doing and why and maybe some ideas about how to do it..

Student: Oh just some material I'm pushing around trying stuff out. I began with no idea, still don't have one and will be showing this in my show next month.

Teacher: Great. Gotta go get my bread and butter and cake and zuccini stir fry. Hope they have quinoa today! Good job!

Carol Diehl said...

I'm glad it was helpful! I've saved some other commonly held beliefs to mull over in the future, so stay posted.

But read on...Joan has other thoughts on the subject....

Carol Diehl said...

I guess I’ve run into more talkers than doers (although not at VSC this time), and often the makers of mishmash are some of the most verbose. I do ask, “What is your ambition for this work, what do you want it to do?” which is more about a direction that involves a feeling they want to evoke, rather than a concept or reason for being. I’m interested work that’s multi-layered and ambiguous, and often an interpretation that’s too easily described becomes simply a one-liner.

Michael Cammer said...

Art teaching is different than being an artist. Art students need to develop verbal vocabulary to discuss art intelligently. But the blog entry is about artists who have at least a bit more experience than the typical student.

"Artworks must be consistent for a final review, to show a dealer, or for an exhibition."
This prevents experimentation. It’s also boring.

You have to have a concept in mind—and be able to articulate it—before you can start working."
If a good concept is, “I’ll look at the stuff on my table and paint it with the materials on hand in my studio,” then I can accept this rule. If you can verbally articulate a complex idea, then, perhaps, paint or sculpture isn't really the correct medium.

"After it’s finished, the artist should be able to explain what the work is about and why he/she did it."
Both to address the word “articulate” (as in verbal) in rule #2 and this statement, why not just write instead of making art? Be a philosopher. It’s not really true that a picture is worth a thousand words. Another metaphor: you can’t mix apples and oranges. It makes as much sense to say that you have to be able to explain a painting as it makes sense to say that you have to dance an opera.

Carol Diehl said...

Thanks, Michael. Well put!

Anonymous said...

Curiously, even beginning to write a comment about this discussion gave me the willies. Do I really need to respond in an articulate way? The irony of this made me laugh - the necessity to describe/define/explain/ the idea of describing/defining/explaining/ anything just leaves me fuzzed up and tongue tied. In the end, as my fabulous colleague Toni Small says "You just have to keep doing what you're doing." And for me, the only place that always feels true is when I work from an inner directive and let the external world take care of itself. And then I laughed some more when I remembered the Andy warhol interview where his answer to a question about his work was "Can I just say blabebelbalbelbalbae?"