In the context of the contemporary art world, Nancy Princenthal describes the relation of words to images in terms of conflict or competition: “Words have won.” But is the relationship necessarily adversarial? For many of us, talking and writing are natural responses to experiencing works of art, just as we might also want to discuss and assess a movie, a novel, a meal, a football game, or a friend’s new haircut.
When the art in question is difficult and/or unfamiliar, suitable language might prove to be elusive. In such cases, a greater quantity of speech—sometimes tentative or exploratory in tone—might be required to come to terms with the work. Art and speech are distinct modes of signification, but if you are interested in the ways that words can be used to formulate an approach to works of art, that condition is not in itself a problem. Reading art discourse, we are dealing with what Robert Smithson called a “museum of language in the vicinity of art.” The problem is not that words are at odds with images; that is always their status. It is when the words put to the task of dealing with images are poorly considered, empty, or plain stupid that they are potentially destructive.
“Conversation” has recently emerged as a vogue term, though its meanings are fluid. It sometimes refers to ongoing debate in the public arena, sometimes to the matrix of influences and other formative forces on a particular artist’s creative development. (We used to refer to “dialogue.”) Artists work with the expectation that what they do will be looked at—that their work will have viewers. If those viewers are bestirred to comment on it, so much the better. But commentary must be responsible to the forms that precipitate it.
I admire the art historian and critic Julia Bryan-Wilson’s writing, for example, in part because her every observation, assertion, assessment, is firmly rooted in close examination of the physical and visual facts of the impetus for her exposition, the art itself. Hers is a responsible approach to analysis and interpretation, one that others would do well to emulate. In “The Short Review,” the painter and critic Fairfield Porter writes that “criticism creates an analogy, and by examining the analogy you see what the art essentially is.” Less direct, perhaps, than Bryan-Wilson’s methodology, Porter’s is no less attentive to the experiential source.
There should be informed debate whenever opinions diverge; in criticism, consensus is boring. The most interesting art does not completely speak for itself, does not answer all the questions it raises. There is always something to say about it—what it implies, portends, denies, overlooks, ignores. And what its precedents are: 30 years ago, young artists in New York were under constant pressure notto be in “conversation” with anyone but rather to be original, to pursue a unique personal vision unencumbered by the past. That was then; now, thank God, artists can speak freely about the interrelatedness of their work with that of kindred artistic spirits past and present (even if they haven’t heard, pace Barthes, that their “work” is actually a “text”).
As I read it, Nancy’s questions imply that much of the glut of commentary on the Web is irresponsible to the work it ostensibly remarks upon, but it seems to me that a lot of rhetorical garbage arrives in print as well as pixels. We have all read vacuous gallery press releases that ineptly regurgitate tepid academic writing, obsequious puff pieces, in the guise of the “profile,” designed to inflate a fashionable artist’s reputation even further, tedious exhibition reviews by writers in thrall to critical theory yet heedless of Louis Althusser’s description of a “theoretical problematic which in putting its object to the test puts itself to the test of the object.” We disregard these bromides as best we can, but each one that somehow makes it into print contributes incrementally to a column-inch culture in which value is commensurate with media visibility. For me, the issue is not prolixity in the vicinity of art but the paucity of careful, generous looking. The remedy is the writer’s authentic, open-minded engagement with the imagination and speculation for which the artist has sought forms.
STEPHEN MAINE is an artist and critic based in Brooklyn, New York.