The term art-wanker is finding its way into mainstream references, not least thanks to the musings of MONA founder David Walsh. I’m knee deep in the land of art-wank – it comes with the territory when working as a gallery director, curator, academic or writer. Personally, I love it. But it’s not to everyone’s taste. And whether it’s relevant to understanding art is a debate that always rages among artists and art lovers.
According to that old chestnut of a saying, ‘a picture tells a thousand words’, and it’s no coincidence that art provokes an outpouring of words in an effort to describe, translate and communicate what is compelling about it. But it’s fair to say that a lot of contemporary art is so obscure, so confusing and so unappealing on an aesthetic level that the resulting outpouring of words to describe it is equally hard to get a handle on. In the end, much of it just sounds like a bunch of try-hard-intellectuals trying to outdo each other with fancy words and completely impenetrable ramblings. And it’s no surprise that people end up referring to this enterprise as a form of collective masturbation.
Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs
There’s a variety of paradoxical points of view on this. Art has been a topic of great intellectual investigation since Plato and Aristotle were knocking about in togas. It’s amazing to people that artists conjure up their creations, often as if they are compelled beyond reason. So few artists actually make a living from art, you wonder why they spend money on materials and devote time to it without the guarantee of anyone even liking it, let alone getting paid for it. It’s not like they’re making cars, fixing toilets or processing cheques – things we generally ascribe value to because they help the obvious functioning of society. Philosophers are fascinated by this and all the great ones have penned numerous essays on why humans make art.
So, when you get smart-arses like philosophers into the mix, then bang!, you’re going to get long-winded musings with long-winded words and before you know it you’re talking about the dematerialised art object, the expanded field and relational aesthetics. As a result, to be taken seriously as an artist, you’ve gotta get your head around this stuff and after a few years of talking like this it’s easy to forget that no-one else has a fucking clue what you’re banging on about.
But – in defence of that, there’s the argument that sometimes, in order to rip those ideas apart, you’ve gotta speak that language and understand those codes. I won’t necessarily tell my mum that the ‘agency of networked objects facilitates a democratisation of things, including concepts’ but it is something I might tell my supervising professor.
Bethan Huws, What’s the point of giving you any more artworks when you don’t understand the ones you’ve got?
In the 1960s something happened in the art world to completely change the way art is thought about and made. Actually, it happened during the first world war, but it didn’t have enough of an impact then to really change things until the 60s.
When we think about the materials of art we think of physical things. Paintings generally use canvas, stretched on wooden frames, with powdered pigments of different colours mixed into oil and splashed all over the surface with a brush. A sculpture might be carved into a block of marble with a hammer and chisel. Music might be created by plucking a steel string on a hand-made wooden shape. But in the 1960s it became perfectly acceptable to think of ideas as a material. In art, a thought was equally on par with an actual physical thing. The resulting conceptual art, then, is about ideas, thoughts and concepts (from which it gets its name). You don’t even need to make anything. You can just whisper a phrase into someone’s ear and call it a performance artwork.
To some people this is horrifying. To a lot of people it’s just shit. To others still, it’s fucking genius. And then again we get into masturbatory territory. The people who love it will need to find well-crafted words to support it, to back up what is essentially something incredibly delicate and ephemeral. To justify why a whisper is genius, people end up spouting vast volumes of highly convoluted prose.
Lawrence Weiner, Dust and Water
On the one hand, this makes sense because there’s a need to try and communicate something so fresh and new that it takes a while to clearly articulate it. Sometimes new words need to be made up to describe the new ideas. Sometimes there’s a desire to draw on theories from science, politics and the humanities, and mash them together to make new ones that will explain what it’s all about. On the other hand, it isolates people who don’t read theories, don’t care about theories and don’t give a shit about explanations. Some people don’t need that, and no art should ever require it. This all comes to the same end – to a lot of people this is just boring shit, and to others it’s fucking genius.
If you’re not fond of the talk, you’ll see a bunch of chin-scratchers stroking each other’s egos in a form of outright wankery. Pure self-love dressed up in 6 syllable words. And you’d be right, in a lot of ways. But you shouldn’t ever let that wankery get in the way of your enjoyment of the art. In the end, it’s you and the art, standing together. You either like it, or you don’t. Read more into it by consulting others’ thoughts if you want. You might find out new and interesting things about the art if you do. You might also find out that it’s total bullshit. Alternatively, you might not even want to read the title of the work or who made it. Any or all of these approaches is equally valid. Art is not a code to be deciphered it’s something to be experienced. And experiences are best felt not described. Ironically, just like a good wank.
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