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Peeks and Piques!
Writing and the Arts
ART TIMES January/February 2007

I’VE BEEN AT this business of writing about art for over 25 years — a bad habit I initially picked up in my college days about 40 years ago but had the sense to hold in abeyance until, in 1984, we launched ART TIMES and I once again gave in to the addictive vice. Next to money — which, in my estimation, has almost totally corrupted art, artists, dealers, arts publications and organizations — the written word has probably done more to undermine the value and intent of art than have the never-ending stream of wannabes that glut the artworld — and the sad thing is, so many artists — even serious ones — have willingly jumped on the bandwagon in the pursuit of  its debasement. I refer here to one of my favorite piques, something I’ve harped on in the past and which some of you may be tired of hearing about, namely the notoriously absurd “Artist Statement.” (I’ll bypass for now the ever more intrusive wall placards mounted in museums and galleries alongside artworks that can readily speak for themselves since, in most cases, the artists are not complicit in the insult.)  OK. So we can understand (if not condone) how they’ve let the lure of money (yes, yes, they do have to eat and pay the bills) turn what was once a noble profession into a marketable enterprise, and art — once believed to have a noble mission — into a commodity, but how can they have let the written word gain so much power over what is undeniably an older and perhaps more reliable form of expression? Artist, League teacher, Rick Pantell once quipped: “When they invite a poet to give a reading, do they ask him to paint a picture?” Of course not! The one artform is not interchangeable with the other. The one cannot “explain” or clarify or “stand” for the other. At best, such “artist statements” obfuscate; at worst, they pronounce to the world that the art has failed to communicate on its own terms. At the very worst, such statements reveal that the art cannot stand on its own and needs such shoring up to find acceptance (and a gullible buyer). So, why then do gallery owners insist that their artists supply a written statement as to what they are doing in paint, clay, ink, or whatever? We do not, for example, have to understand the Flemish language to “get” what van Dyke is saying in his paintings. Or, Italian to “get” Michelangelo. Or, German to “get” Dürer. Their visual language is clear — much clearer, in fact, to those who can’t speak the languages if those artists were to communicate in their native tongues. When — and more pointedly — has the visual language been co-opted by the verbal? Painter Will Barnet once said to me, “One word is worth a thousand paintings” — purposely reversing the old adage to prove his point that the critic has firmly taken over the reins, making his word speak “louder” that the work of art. Will’s theory is that although educated people can read, most cannot read a painting — which, believe it or not — takes a certain amount of effort (and we all know how much the public enjoys effort). In brief, it’s simply easier to read what some “expert” says about an artist and his work than it is to undertake the job on one’s own. Surely there were artists schmearing cave walls eons before the first critic stepped up to the plate. How did they manage to shoulder aside the artist and take the lead? Even a moment’s reflection will tell you that there is no way that the visual language of art can be “translated” into a verbal one. In fact, there is hardly a reliable way of translating one verbal language into another. I try to prove this point in my lectures on the art of art criticism by asking my audience how many have ever read a Haiku poem. Invariably a fair amount of hands go up. My next question is, “How many of you read Japanese?” Considerably fewer hands — if any — are raised. The point I then make is that if you cannot read Japanese, then you have never read a Haiku poem — merely a translation of one. How much more difficult then, to try to “translate” art — or music — or dance — into a verbal construct? For those of you who are now visualizing me seated upon the very branch that I am strenuously trying to saw off, let me assure you that I am fully aware of the irony. The simple fact is — and I wholeheartedly agree — I can’t translate art into words — but I can try to use words to persuade you to go and see — for yourself — a particular exhibit that I have found “speaks” to me. All I ask is that you don’t confuse the two — words are words and art is art. No more no less.