Artists: Write It! Speak It!
Because art does not speak for itself.
Myth #2: Art speaks for itself. Words and language are unnecessary since art is a visual experience. If you it doesn’t speak for itself it’s not doing its job. If you don’t understand it, you must not know anything about art.
Making art consists of a series of choices to simplify and eliminate information. Even a photograph does this – it eliminates an entire dimension. A three-dimensional world is simplified into two-dimensions. A moment of time is frozen into a single image eliminating any information that lead up to that instant and any information that followed.
Artist Austin Kleon sums it up well, ‘Creativity is subtraction.’ His site Newspaper Blackout illustrates his statement beautifully. People can post poetry that they create by taking a newspaper article and wielding a marker, eliminating any extraneous words to create new meaning.
Newspaper Blackout uses a shared language of the written word. Much of what you will find is easily understood. But as anyone who has ever taken a literature class will know, once you delve deeper into the shared language of the written word, you will find an art form that lends itself to myriad interpretations. Each author has developed a unique voice that often becomes more compelling the more it is investigated. Some texts are harder to penetrate than others depending on the writer’s voice, composition and subject matter. Something or someone that sheds light on it can be the key to developing a meaningful relationship with the text rather than it being merely enjoyed or worse, remaining inaccessible to the reader.
Visual artists also develop a unique ‘voice’ and develop a personal visual language. The more liberal the artist is with subtraction, the more individualistic that language may appear to be. Who, but the artist, is the best at giving that key to the language to the viewer?
It’s not that someone can’t enjoy experiencing art without that key, but making it accessible reveals layers of meaning that transform an image from just being something nice to look at into being art.
I always enjoyed Chuck Close’s portraits. But listen to him talk about his condition called face blindness on Radio Lab. Layers of meaning are revealed. It only enhances the experience of viewing his paintings to know more about his process of making them and how the process is integrated into his life rather than the additional information detracting from the experience.
The process of making portraits is part of Chuck Close’s process of navigating the world in his unique way because of his face blindness. Similarly, yet much less dramatically, my paintings are a result of the process of working through the desire I have to develop a strong sense of place using the landscapes of the places I live as a vehicle. I feel as if my paintings are artifacts of the process rather than the paintings being the main goal. They are my way of organizing information to reach a greater understanding of my subject so I can navigate through the world more adeptly.
If I don’t speak about my paintings, they will probably only exist for others on the level of formal color studies. The way that I title the work might give a clue that they refer to something more. But if I tell you about the choices I make that lead to the compositions, I give you access to more layers. If I tell you about the places I visit and why I am drawn to them, I give you even more access.
Giving access to the artwork is not the same as telling you what everything means. It is merely handing out a key, like a map and field guide, that will help the viewer navigate their own way.
Making art accessible is not the same as making easily accessible art. Thomas Kincaid makes easily accessible imagery. If you go to his website, you’ll find that there is almost nothing written about the images. There isn’t much that needs to be said about his cabins in idyllic settings. There is no information that would give you a key to a new layer of meaning – just the opposite of Chuck Close.
I believe that if you can’t speak about your work, you don’t understand it well enough yourself. If you don’t understand it, why would anyone else? Write and speak about your art. Make it accessible.