Explanations betray art???

Explanations are the traitor of art according to Jonathan Jones of the Guardian’s art&architecture blog. Jones actually has one or two good things to say in this post, but you wouldn’t know it by the first two sentences. “Serious art defies easy interpretation, and artists should resist the call to explain themselves,” he starts with. “It is a vice of second-rate art to come with its own eloquent explanation attached.”

The term “serious art” always throws up red flags for me. I know there are hobbyists who dabble in painting, retirees who pick up a brush and paint from their back porch because they don’t know what to do with themselves after retiring. Bella Vista, Arkansas — a retirement village in my own county — seems to have plenty of these.

Yes, I know that was a bit of a harsh example, but the point is that there’s a difference between people who paint for relaxation and people who paint because they have to. It’s in the latter’s blood to be visually creative. They are restless and incomplete if they don’t have the time or opportunity to regularly be in their studio. However, Jonathan Jones doesn’t seem to be segregating hobbyists from those born with artistic passion. From what I can tell he’s referring specifically to the passionate types.

Further, he implies in no subtle terms that serious art is a certain kind of art by using Jackson Pollock as an example. Pollock is largely representative of 20th century art — however myopic this point of view may be — which is a very small slice of the millennial pie. I happen to like Pollock’s drip series, but using him and other expressionists as an example leads one to believe that the only kind of serious art is cutting edge (to a fault, in my opinion), always looking for the newest thing. Also implied is that serious art is only non-representational art. This is bogus as well.

Being modern, cutting edge or novel does not necessarily make for serious art. That said, it is good and important for artists to eagerly explore new ideas, new media, but they need to constantly remember that “there is nothing new under the sun.”

Is art second-rate just because it comes with an eloquent explanation? Of course not. Judge the work on its own merits, please. If the artist wants to attach a few paragraphs of his or her inspiration and intent, let them. This has no bearing on the formal qualifications of the canvas, even if it might give viewers a different way to look at a painting.

So what does Jones get right in his post? Particularly this: “As soon as you start saying what people want to hear, adapting your art to the common sense political and moral platitudes of ordinary speech, you betray subtlety and poetry.” I’m not exactly certain what he means by “common sense political” speech, but I wholeheartedly affirm the importance of subtlety and poetry in art.

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About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

One Response to Explanations betray art???

  1. Tim J. says:

    I don’t know how far I would push the idea that “explanations betray art”, but there may be a kernel of truth to it. I always thought that the necessity of reading a paper or manifesto in order to understand a piece of art was testimony that the art had already failed in some way.

    Even the titles of pieces can amount to a kind of explanation – or at least a hint – of the meaning or context. I wouldn’t say that this was a bad thing. If you have a portrait of a woman, it does make a difference whether you title it something like “Arrangement in Gray and Black” or “The Empress in Mourning”. A little guidance can go a long way, but if the whole idea of the work needs deciphering, it might be a pretty questionable piece of art.

    Yeah, “serious art” is a drag.

    The statement “artists should resist the call to explain themselves” strikes me as possibly elitist at its core. Like the unspoken rule in grad school that if ordinary people off the street could comprehend and enjoy your art, then you must be screwing up, somewhere. If you could cause confusion, or better, indignation, you were clearly an artist of high caliber.

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