Someone had repeatedly taken a baseball bat to one of artist, Jenn Garrett’s sculptures while they were on display in South Carolina. “Maybe we should just uninstall it,” she had said. As she recounted the incident during a recent Creative For Health workshop, she was calm, but obviously disappointed and perhaps sad. A few months earlier, Leslie Tharp—who runs the local art group, Art Lab—asked me to put a short course together to help artists write artists statements. In attendance were Leslie and Karen Tharp, Jenn Garrett and Leora Lieberman, a volunteer who is also a writer and an MPH student now applying to medical schools. After hearing Jenn’s story, I said whomever had done that was obviously not someone the artist was trying to reach. It was an inhuman and barbaric act.
Although this is an extreme, irrational reaction to a piece, it demonstrates the way art can bring up strong emotions for viewers. I have spent a lot of time thinking about how people can work with their feelings about art in ways that will actually benefit them. As an artist myself, I also can’t avoid asking the following questions: Do artists have a responsibility to help guide their audience’s exploration of their artwork? If so, how?
Artists statements are an important way artists connect with audiences. Leslie Tharp made a valuable point at the start of the last Tuesday’s workshop. Artists’ statements need to be somewhat flexible. Language needs to suit particular segments of our audiences—grad schools, galleries, grant providers. My goal, I said, was to help artists uncover important themes in their work that they could draw on again and again in different contexts no matter whom they were addressing.
Much of my ideas about artist statements were molded in grad school. By the time I got into Goddard’s MFA program in Interdisciplinary Art, I had a background in writing, but was interested in expanding my practice to include visual art—primarily through photography and film-making. I was looking for new, more expressive ways to publish poetry. Most of the people I met at Goddard were visual artists, performers, and musicians. Often, they complained about writing, which was a requirement of the program. At Goddard, you had to know what you were making and why—and you needed to be able to write about it. That is not to say you had to spoon-feed meaning to viewers. None of the faculty would put themselves in the ridiculous position of trying to define art for someone. Art often asks more questions than it answers. But you did have to have a purpose, even if the purpose of your work was dedication to a process of uncovering your purposes. The phrase, “The work speaks for itself,” wasn’t enough.
When they started out, my artist friends used puzzling language in their statements. They relied on arcane theoretical terms or obscure spiritual references that confused me. Be assured, I am NOT knocking theory or spirituality. They are clearly important pursuits for artists. But artists have a responsibility to communicate. They ought to be clear and consistent, even if they are intentionally trying to confuse people (Dada artists are an example).
When I was bewildered after reading someone’s artist statement, I often started a conversation with her or him. We would be sitting in the dining hall. “I love your paintings,” I’d say. “Where do you get the ideas for them.” In conversation, the technical jargon and mythic mumbo jumbo melted away. They talked about their histories, their communities, their cultures, their families, and friends. They talked about their roles in society as activists, parents, and teachers. The told me about the weather in the places where they are from and about the way the sunlight plays on edges of rivers and lake water. At the time, I wondered why they didn’t put that material into their statements, but I didn’t’ say anything about it. Those conversations eventually led me into a short career as an arts journalist, and in some ways to Arts in Medicine.
What should we do when we have an emotional reaction to art? When I experience art, I try to follow my curiosity. If art grabs my attention or brings something up, I ask myself, “Why?” and go looking for answers. I read the artist’s statement and what others have written about their work. I look at catalogs, track down influences, and view earlier pieces. I tend to focus on artists whose work I love because the experiences are often stronger. Others may want to look closely at artwork that bothers them. Either way, avoid being passive. Be proactive. It’s really the only way to experience art. Like Wynton Marsalis said in Ken Burns’ documentary, Jazz: “When an art form is created, the question is how do you come to it? Not how does it come to you. Like Beethoven’s music is not going to come to you. Or the art of Picasso is not going to come to you. Shakespeare-you have to go to it. And when you go to it you get the benefit of it.”
For their part, artists have a duty and an opportunity to provide a door or window into their art through their artist statement. They don’t need to “explain” their art to people, but they ought to provide something interesting that helps the viewer connect on a human level. This is difficult, Karen Tharp noted, because many artists don’t want to be too vulnerable. That is understandable. It’s important to have boundaries in any line of work, particularly the arts. For example, when is it OK for an artist to work for free? That is an important boundary we all have to navigate. The problem arises when we confuse barriers with boundaries. (Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron wrote a good essay on this topic that I recommend.) We need to recognize the difference between healthy boundaries that support our well-being and unhealthy barriers—often based on irrational fears—that prevent us from living fully into our purposes.
After a brief free-writing exercise last Tuesday night, I divided the artists into groups of two. I provided a list of questions intended to provoke conversations about important details of their lives. In oral history fashion, an interviewer jotted down what she heard on a notepad. Each person talked for 15 minutes, then swapped roles. At the end, they shared what they learned about one another. Artists got to hear their words reflected back to them from someone who had listened closely. I thought it was important to frame the questions in a positive way to ensure support instead of criticism.
The time of sharing was also supportive. Jenn shared her story about the vandalized artwork during this period at the end of the workshop. She went on to say she is thinking about incorporating a discussion of her roles as a mother and spouse into her artist’s statement. But she didn’t want to sound cheesy. She addressed the other women in the group and asked what they thought. They were overwhelmingly supportive. I tried to be too. “I would love to hear more from artists who are mothers,” I said.
In many ways the workshop was an experiment. I got positive feedback though. Maybe I ought to expand it and turn it into a daylong or multi-session program.