It looks like words have won...by Michelle Grabner
It is a great declaration and I wish it were true. It excites me to think that words OR visuality could win the day. But alas, neither holds a place of prominence in contemporary art. Their singularity makes them unworkably slow, a clot in the flow of networked information.
That species of centaur that Harold Rosenberg constructed—the beast “half art material, half words”—has evolved into a chimera with a third head: the jpeg. How earnestly Rosenberg observed in “Art and Words” (the New Yorker, 1969):
Recent art criticism has reversed earlier procedures; instead of deriving principles from what it sees, it teaches the eye to ‘see’ principles. To qualify as a member of the art public, an individual must be tuned to the appropriate verbal reverberations of objects in art galleries, and his reception mechanism must be constantly adjusted and oscillate to new vocabularies.
But a new element of communication has come to the fore: compressed digital photography.
“M.F.A. grads are making cozy, nice, unassuming, slightly frazzled, handcrafted works that are designed to speed like bullets (but without hitting anything). Artworks are improvised in relation to all the information that flies through them. Like dream catchers. Flimsiness is strategic, a seduction performed in relation to screens and networks. And every writer is now a screenwriter,” writes John Kelsey in his essay for the 2012 Whitney Biennial catalogue. But he also sees that “writing can be a way of unworking the work these spaces constantly demand, maybe even reclaiming their abstraction as poetic possibilities. If writing can do anything here it’s by countering the functional openness of the new productive formats with its own specific and ‘impossible’ space, and many artists are becoming writers for this reason.” However he goes on to say that, “Artists are also blogging, perhaps in order to make art criticism die a little on the screen … Here the work is gossip and the gossip is the message.”
From my perspective, writing is a vehicle that demands of me the responsibility and discipline to look slowly and carefully at art. I may no longer believe in the histories and the context I offer up, but if it gets my nose close to a painting I am delighted to volley back my experience and assessment in words.
MICHELLE GRABNER is an artist, curator, and writer.