Friday, June 30, 2006

Talent vs. Bullshit

Tonight I am going to pose a question to which I am sure, that by the end of this post, I will have provided no answer. I have a feeling it’s one of those with no real answer. So here are my current musings on the subject.
Which is more essential in the success of an artist, the talent and its execution, or the ability to write an acceptable justification for its public display? In other words, is quality or theory more important?
Art, throughout its history, has not always required an explanation. Its background and context as recorded by the artist himself became important to future generations of scholars, to be sure. But with the context, style, etc. often decided by the patron, an artist was not usually expected to justify their work in writing or speech.
Certainly since the Impressionists’ time, artists have in a sense relied on theory for the success of their art. The advent of the photograph had something to do with this. As art became liberated from record-keeping, it faced the challenge of having to exist for its own sake. Some of it did this without the need for further testimony. And some of it used the assistance of theories- philosophical, socio-political, formalistic, and psychological for example. Dada, Minimalism, Expressionism, and Surrealism, for example. I would even argue that some artists would not be in our history books at all if they hadn’t been able to verbally persuade audiences of the worth of their creation.
Prior to reading “The Spiral Jetty (1972, written by the artist himself, Robert Smithson) I didn’t really feel one way or the other about his work, or Earth Art in general. It can often be awe-inspiring in its own element, ludicrously out of place in a museum, and totally unimpressive in a picture. Perhaps this leads to excessive theorizing as a means to arm the artist against critics, or perhaps Smithson is just full of himself. Would his work now be less well-known without his explanation? While I’m sure it’s actually impressive, my opinion of it has to be based on the pictures I’ve seen, and the accounts of those who have seen it in person, and the artist’s explanation. Because, like most of us, I haven’t been there. And I don’t think it looks all that great in a photo. Therefore, when it comes to Spiral Jetty, justification in writing becomes integral to the legacy of the piece.
Not to mention the fact, of course (lest our heads get too big,) that an artwork is just a thing, and like any other, can have its physical presence destroyed.
It seems rare now that artists can get by without verbally promoting their work. Even an anti-theorist like Basquiat articulated what his work “meant.” You may be reluctant to do this, or perhaps the work can’t sustain itself otherwise. But if you don’t do it yourself, you have to find someone else to do it for you. I don’t think “Fine Art” can compete for people’s attention by just being pretty anymore. And if we’re not trying to get people’s attention, all the theories in the world won’t justify the space our art takes up.