Diana Probst, Cambridge Artist

On Art and Ignorance IIII

To some, I will be flogging a dead horse. Some time back, @davidallengreen posted an article on Art and Exhibitions from which I took several points. I agreed with a large part of what he was saying, but it was not his area of expertise. Neither is it mine – he was talking about large art shows, and exhibitions. However, he also, I believe, descended in scale, talking to artists rather than creators. This got my goat.

The quote that gets to me is the second paragraph here:

Any one who spends longer reading a caption explaining a work of art than actually looking at the work of art has no business in an art gallery.

Any artist who puts any effort whatsoever in writing the caption, or the catalogue or sales “explanation” of their work, has no business calling themselves an artist.

You should go read it in the original context if you have not already, but I read several assumptions here. First, and foremost, anyone who wants to can call themselves an artist. It’s not like calling yourself a lawyer. You don’t need qualifications. The rider to that is that most people who call themselves artists are not by arbitrary standards very good. If you ‘become an artist’ and throw paint at a canvas and try to sell the result, the likelihood is that I will not want to buy your work. It does not stop you from being an artist, it just means you will not pay the bills.

You see, second point here, art has a surprising function. It does very little – it just gets looked at. For a society to rise to the point where someone may spend their life trying to make beautiful things (or for a certain definition of art, ugly and depressing things) you need to have licked all sorts of problems first. You need to know you will survive the winter, and that nobody is going to steal your life or your belongings. You need a stable society (or a good stab at one, anyhow. To some degree societies fail when they get comfortable enough to produce artists). You also need notions of beauty.

When you hear a piece of music, you do not like it because of its inherent beauty. You like it because you have been trained to like it. From a young age you have heard music based on the same scales, depending on where on Earth you were born. You were told ‘this is beautiful’ and your brain was moulded that way, so that you believe it. If you look at Fine Art and are told ‘this is beautiful’ then you believe that too, because the world around you punishes those who disbelieve in societal interaction. You never grew up in a human void, unless you were actually raised by wolves. If humans die out tomorrow, the same things we worship might be seen by intelligent ant overlords as the nadir of taste. Beauty is literally in the eye of the beholder; the eye is a part of the central nervous system that pokes out in a dangerous way from inside the skull.

If you look at modern art and are told ‘this is beautiful, valid, or interesting’ then it becomes so for you. I personally have little time for art that does not have exhibited skill in it. Some modern art obviously does. Some, other people add value to by believing in that value. If we can support modern banking based on the idea that money has value, then we can support modern art based on the agreement that such pieces have validity. I don’t care – it is not what I do.

So back to that quote. No matter what I do, I can call myself an artist. I’m a good one, according to feedback, and I’m getting better as fast as I can manage. The interesting thing is whether I can call myself a ‘successful professional artist’. I am working on the ‘successful’ part. I just paid for my food money this month, which is a start. But how I choose to present my work for the best possible chance of sales is up to me and anyone I might ask to help me with that presentation, not up to someone who has not seen it, or who has seen a habit they dislike. I have a description of my self-portrait and the process behind it because otherwise people will think I am charging for a few days of work, instead of for a few weeks. I wrote that because I am an artist, and not despite it. I wrote it to sidestep the assumptions of people who do not have the same level of understanding as I do.

There is a problem. I admit that. Bad artists are being validated, and by ‘bad’ I mean those whose value will provably not hold. But the captions are a symptom and not the problem. You do not cure the disease by picking spots – that spreads the disease, and gets your fingers dirty besides. This is a debate that goes on at many levels. I agree with the first sentence I quoted. Really, if you have gone to look at the pictures, look at the pictures. But if you are the artist, decide for yourself how best to put your work over, and if you are a caption writer in a major exhibition… well, try not to annoy Jack of Kent. He’s a busy man, and a lover of provably good art.

I am bringing this series of posts to an end now. They may read similarly, but to me each has a different point, all building up to one thing; if you haven’t tried it, don’t knock it. I may not give a damn about Jackson Pollock, but I know some people, whom I respect tremendously, who do. They can even give reasons. Whatever kind of art you see, it has value if people pay for it, and it keeps that value if people keep on paying for it. That is how to judge ‘good’ art. How to label good art is far more complex, but I am going to continue to do that where and when I see fit.