Friday, September 22, 2017

17 seconds

Of all art forms the written word is the most privileged. Learning to read is unavoidable. So few of us become proficient in other arts like painting, ceramics or woodworking. The idea of the written artist statement was the primary focus of the recent panel discussion Artists Who Write about Art. Part of the Milford Readers & Writers Festival, the event was one of many author readings, panels and conversations during the 3-day annual festival in September, in Milford, Pennsylvania.

Moderated by Maleyne Syracuse, the panel consisted of Kristen Muller, Executive Director of the nearby Peters Valley School of Craft; Bruce Dehnert, Head of Ceramics at Peters Valley School of Craft; and Susan Brown, Associate Curator of Textiles at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

When viewing a piece of art, do the writings of the artists affect our understanding of their work? Why are artists asked to write about what they’ve made? Syracuse stressed how our culture privileges verbal and written communication. Crossing boundaries within artistic genres is isn’t novel when an author is asked to help develop their book into a film, but they’re never asked to construct a ceramic vase in an effort to clarify their story.

Panelists outlined a number of reasons artist statements are important despite the fact that many artists hate writing them.

Galleries and auctions simply need words to market an artist’s work. An artist’s bio and photos of work are vital to promoting it and panelists talked about how the most useful statements talk about the body of work and the danger of overcomplicating statements.

Works can be opaque and cryptic for viewers and understanding depends on who is approaching the work. Studies show viewers look at a work of art for about 17 seconds. Captioning information can make viewers take a second look. One panelist referred to a collection of Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother in which the painter talks about his process, feelings and even the colors that he used. As humans we crave narrative, we want stories. Artist statements put the work in the context of a story: the type of glaze used, inspiration, firing method, historical context, political climate, etc.

Connecting with a broader audience
Some people are simply not interested in art. When viewers prefer other interests such as history, construction, or health, referring to a work in the context of its artist’s time period, the piece’s materials, or even their health or personal problems can help viewers understand a work from their perspective. Writing about art is about discovery and you have to meet people where they are. A printed catalogue gives curators more room to share those elements.

The panel discussed other topics and fielded questions from the audience. Dehnert said for a long time he was skeptical of the use of words in a painting. He told the audience about his own father’s reaction to a work that displayed the phrase, “did you really think they cared.” The words had such an emotional impact that the man left the room to sit and sat on the sidewalk outside. The structure of spaces such as museums, galleries and actions affect the artworks they display. Panelists described Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts which houses large scale immersive works in its cavernous 250,000 square feet of space, as well as a museum that constructed a replica 1980s New York City subway setting for a Basquiat exhibit. The audience questioned the use trend of omitting some or all labelling for exhibited art and a panelist explained the practice is troublesome from a curatorial perspective, and also for determining what art is original and what is derivative.

The panel explored how changes in technology and social media affect the art world. From a curatorial perspective, simply being able to digitally copy and paste reduces time spend retyping text, but social media has piled on the work. Now curators and artists maintain blogs and social media profiles which streamline efforts to reach out to people and invite them where ever they are. One panelist was thrilled with the “Instagrammable experience” and connection social media makes between an artist and their audience.

Muller said social media helps artists reach a broader and non-traditional audience but artists can feel pressure to be more public than they would like to be.

Milford Readers & Writers Festival:

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