questions and answers

Flowering Nest

Occasionally a question posed in a private correspondence provokes an explanation about how I present my work. Rebecca Verity, who lives in the States, owns a preparatory Saint Kevin drawing I made. She asked me what I meant by the term ‘curator speak’, used disparagingly in an earlier e-mail to her, and I answered the question, though I shan’t share my reply here. But this led me on to the matter of my titles and the lack of explanations in them, and how I see their function in relation to my work.

Rebecca. ‘What is this curator-speak which you so despise?  Is it (I ask in a very small voice) when the curator tells you all about a piece, the stories behind it and such?  Because (I say in a still smaller voice) I really like that.  Having been raised culturally illiterate, I love learning about paintings and the artists who created them.  Camille on Her Death Bed, for instance – is just weird and unnerving, until you know the story of Monet and his wife, and hear his account of painting it, and then it is still perhaps unnerving, but also heartbreaking and perplexing and challenging.’

And I always go and research your saints; the stories of their lives make the paintings so much more thought provoking then if they’re just unknown figures.  

Clive. Never fear, what you’re talking about is a quite different thing to the despised ‘curator speak’, and of course can be helpful, though with my paintings I prefer explanatory text panels to be placed some distance away, because I want eyes on the images and not on any words. But the fact that when confronted with one of my paintings you go off to do some research, is heartening to me, because that’s exactly the kind of curiosity I aspire to provoke. When my ‘saints paintings’ appear in galleries, often with their slightly elusive titles that don’t explain the events depicted, the absence is because my job is to ask questions, not to provide immediate explanations. My hope is that the susceptible viewer  will go away and think on what’s been represented, perhaps to look for answers elsewhere. The important thing when seeing a painting for the first time is not the specific, as in ‘this is a representation of the Irish Saint Kevin in his cell with the blackbird of legend’, but rather the sense of a non-specific, universal encounter between man and beast that has a mystery at its heart. In many ways it’s unimportant who is represented or what event is described in the image. What matters is that the viewer be allowed to think and then draw a conclusion, and afterwards to explore elsewhere if moved to do so. The work is intended to be the first crumb in a trail that leads away to other, and perhaps even more interesting discoveries.’
I should add that there is an exception with regard to my aversion to text panels in proximity to my paintings, inasmuch that when a panel holds a poem, then the proximity is a good thing. I don’t see poems as being ‘explanations’, but companion works.
Postscript: Sometimes the comment boxes at the Artlog get to be more interesting than the posts.  That’s proved to be the case with this one, and so if you’ve the time, do scamper along to see if there’s anything to interest you down there.

28 thoughts on “questions and answers

  1. There used to be a column in a UK art magazine (maybe Arts Review?) to which people could send examples of the kind of pretentious, meaningless art-jargon which purports to be ‘expert’. Like Pseud’s Corner in Private Eye. I think it’s not only curators but many art journalists, critics, academics and others who engage in this verbal vacuity. Maybe it’s a fear of expressing what they really think, or a cover-up for not having anything worthwhile to say, or a kind of one-upmanship so as to appear cleverer than other pundits.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more, Natalie… especially the sentiments expressed in your last sentence above. In fact, it’s for those very reasons I stopped attending academic art conferences years ago… and also unsubscribed from most of the mainstream art and criticism journals and magazines. ; ) In so many cases, the articles were just a rehashed version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”—attempts by the writers to explain why there was nothing much of consequence about which to write.

  2. Couldn’t agee more, Clive. Curator-speak is rampant in Quebec and Canada, sometimes taking on more importance than the the works themselves – in fact there are actually professionals who “write” artist statements in this “language” for grant applications and gallery proposals! Jonathan has a large photo in a new exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. When we went to the opening and read the curator’s statement posted beside the work, we both burst out laughing, it was so absurd. The image spoke quite well for itself!

    • I think we should all be more intolerant of such nonsense, and take the writers to task. The two examples quoted by Peter were from newspaper reviews drawing attention to the ludicrous texts on display at Tate Modern in the current A Bigger Splash exhibition. One can only hope that those responsible for the worst offences will wince at being ridiculed, and think again before foisting more of their nonsense on us.

      I wonder whether anyone noticed the hilarity the text next to Jonathan’s photograph provoked, and felt duly chastened.

  3. I have really enjoyed reading this post and the comments. I agree wholeheartedly with what’s been written here, but maybe we should give these art critics the benefit of the doubt… after all, mightn’t they just be comedians working in disguise? I honestly don’t think anyone could make it to the end of those quotes and manage keep a straight face.

    • See Beth’s comment above!

      The ‘curator-speak’ aspect of this post has provoked more of a response than I’d expected, and I feel as though there might be mileage in getting people to send me examples of their most outrageous finds, so that we can put them up here and have a real belly-laugh at the writers’ expense!


  4. Interesting post Clive 🙂 This is a bit different but I’m reminded of a journal I read some of for media studies when I was at college which seemed to use something similar to curator- speak, in that most of it seemed somewhat unfathomable or else just a bit ridiculous. I wish I could remember some of the quotes…

  5. Thanks for letting us eavesdrop on your correspondence Clive. I love the term ‘curator speak’ and can only imagine what you inferred when you said it! I suspect it may be similar to the game of ‘bullshit bingo’ that I used to play in business meetings where people ‘pushed the envelope’ on that ‘level playing field’ or talked in acronyms that were meaningless. Your reply to Rebecca describes how the Artlog fix works for me… you mention something/someone I have never heard of and I scuttle away to find out more, always intrigued and then enlightened. As an example – and I know I can get them online – I still go into every second hand bookshop with the name Sebastian Japrisot in the back of my mind. I want to come across him by accident and discover the pleasure of reading him. As for paintings, I don’t necessarily need to know everything about it. For me it’s about standing in front of the image and the gut response I get every time I look at it. Probably too simplistic but I am a simple soul and that’s how it works for me.

    • Lesley, last night Peter wrote to me from London with a couple of examples of ‘curator-speak’ from the current Tate Modern exhibition ‘A Bigger Splash’. If you look below at my reply to Anita Mills, you’ll see I’ve included the passage from his e-mail in which he quotes a couple of particularly gristly examples of curatorial nonsense from it!

      I’m so pleased to hear that you continue to enjoy the occasional Artlog ‘fix’. Thank you for telling me. And do continue hunting down the elusive Japrisot. You probably need one of those big city bookshops specialising in second-hand paperbacks. But I think you’re right to hold out for a chance find. You might even come upon one with the slightly cheesy artwork of the early editions. At a time when everything is instantly available on the world web, it’s important to remember there is much to be recommended in the deferred pleasure that comes at the end of a long search!

      As for the matter of responses to art, I offer only that there will always be levels of them ranging from the intellectual to the instinctual, and all are valid. Gut response is just fine, and can be a good starting point from which to examine further. It’s frequently my point of entry with an artwork, though I hope that I’m open enough to question my own tendencies and to look without prejudice when my initial response tells me to get the hell out of the gallery and find a coffee-shop! What I am unabashedly prejudiced toward, is tosh from those who try to bludgeon me into submission with ‘curator-speak’!

  6. Wonderful post, so meaningful for artist and viewer, and I concur. I like to leave some mystery for viewers, even save some mystery for myself sometimes for I don’t always have the answers to my work. It is indeed wonderful when viewers see some mysteries themselves.

    Incidentally, when I first read your words ‘curator speak’ I wondered if that meant the same as ‘art speak’. I realize that it is different, using hard to understand words about art that only mean something to other art-speakers, ie. some art critics, even some exhibition curators and sometimes artists themselves writing for grant and exhibition applications.

    • Yes, I’m all for mysteries. Not everything can be explained away by knowledge of the origins of an artwork.

      Take Uccello’s Saint George and the Dragon, a ravishing image so full of the inexplicable that my head spins every time I see it. (The text underneath the image I’ve linked to is so dry as to be almost without meaning, making no reference to the strangeness of the painting to the modern viewer, nor mentioning that it’s strange too by the standards of the time it was made! There is nothing quite like it in art history, a fact that one would imagine deserves a mention on the National Gallery site!) Little I’ve read so far has plausibly accounted for the mysteries of the painting, and I applaud the artist for having so deftly and consistently eluded scholarly interpretation. The painting remains distant yet infinitely engaging, simultaneously frozen and kinetic, dark yet illuminated. It’s full of oddities and contradictions, and it sticks in the mind like a burr. My desert island artwork, the one that would never cease to reward. If I could make one painting as intoxicating as that, I’d die content.

  7. This discussion reminded me of a quote from Marcel Duchamp that I’ve always held in the back of my mind… well, not verbatim, because who can remember such a thing accurately? I’ll share from the book:

    “The onlooker is as important as the artist. In spite of what the artist thinks he’s doing, something stays on that is completely independent of what he intended, and that something is grabbed by society—if he’s lucky. The artist himself doesn’t count. Society just takes what it wants. The work is always based on these two poles of the maker and the onlooker, and the spark that comes from this bi-polar action gives birth to something, like electricity. But the artist shouldn’t concern himself with this because it has nothing to do with him—it’s the onlooker who has the last word. Fifty years later there will be another generation and another critical language, an entirely different approach.”
    —Marcel Duchamp

    [Calvin Tompkins, “The Bride and the Bachelors: The Heretical Courtship in Modern Art,” New York, Viking Press, 1968, p. 18.]

    As for the role of “art critics” to the whole process… another of my favorites comes from painter Barnett Newman (Amer. 1905-1970) when he said, “Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.” ; )

    • That Duchamp observation hits the spot for me. Thank you Anita. It’s reassuring to know that the Curator-Mandarins of today will have their brief moments and then be gone/forgotten. When madness and poor writing combine with verbosity, particularly in well-funded national institutions that promote and exclude according to what is effectively the ‘personal taste’ of the curators, then my hackles rise. All the curator-speak in the world isn’t going to persuade me that something has worth, if the evidence of my eyes tells me otherwise. Peter read the above post while in London, and sent me the following re. the reference to ‘curator-speak’:

      ‘Here’s a bit quoted about the current Tate Modern exhibition A Bigger Splash, which we saw yesterday. Laura Cuming in the Observer noted the unusually grim example of artspeak, the phrase: ‘painting’s entanglement with performativity.’ Alistair Sooke in the Sunday Telegraph picked up the phrase, a ‘series of post-eighties strategies employing collaboration, theatricality and participation.’ I had the free handout that went with the exhibition, but I left it behind in disgust.

  8. Clive, I am drawn to your work and appreciate it for my own reasons. I know very little about the stories they are based on but, because I have related to them in my own way, I haven’t felt the need to research them. I do, however, work with students who have difficulty relating to a lot of art and background stories really help. Since I started working with students my eyes have been opened to art that had left me cold or I’d just overlooked before, but I’ve had to do my research in order to appreciate. Just knowing the context in which a piece was made can help people relate to art and artists. There is a chasm between a lot of art and a lot of people but there’s an art to the line between drawing them in and wrapping it up.

    • Thank you Patricia. Your observations are full of insight, and your summing-up sentence at the end is spot on!

      That a viewer is drawn to a painting is music to an artist’s ears! For me the stories my works draw inspiration from are the starting points of creativity, but once a painting is made, it inhabits its own world regardless of its origins. There are viewers who ask for more, and who want easy explanations. As I see it there are no secrets and I’ll reveal all if asked, though personal preference inclines me to mysteries both in life and in art.

  9. Hi Clive! I like your reply, it might help the questioner to look at the paintings and get the feel of them before seeking explanations in words. If we could convey everything through words we probably would have given up painting by now. With regard to ‘Hills’ reply, I agree that children are better than adults when it comes to looking at art. I remember seeing a child’s comment on a German expressionist painting in the National Museum in Cardiff: ‘sea of jelly’. What we see in a painting is a function of everything else we have seen up to that moment. I see all kinds of very moving things in your work, and thank you for it. Hope you are all well, love, Flo.

    • I greatly like the ‘sea of jelly’ observation, and had I done that painting, I think I’d be happy to field the comparison as a compliment!

      Interestingly, most of the inspiration for my work as a painter stems from the written word. You’ll know that poetry is a significant starting point for many of my paintings, notably the Seamus Heaney poem of Saint Kevin and the Blackbird that has been the source of all the works I’ve made in that series. Currently I’m in thrall to the Simon Armitage translation/re-working of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Fabulous word pictures!

  10. I really like this post, it brought to mind a lecture at university, in which we watched a late interview with Clement Greenberg on the voice of the artist and the voice of the critic. I remember thinking then, that it wasn’t really important which of those voices took precedence as the to me the only voice that mattered was that of the art itself.

    Since then I feel this view even more strongly. Working with pre-teen children, they have taught me to really see. They can speak stories about art that add depths and dimensions I had not considered. And they definitely do not read the side panels.

    Like your correspondent, I do like the back stories for biography if they are relevant. Like finding out the Cherry Blossom by Van Gogh was painted in celebration of his brothers first son. But they are not the draw of art that make me respond initially.

    Although I am delighted to find out about St Kevin, he was a new one to my canon and I rather like him.

    • I’ve always been wary of writers-about-art who want to know the backgrounds to paintings. To begin with I tended toward the evasive, but as time has passed I’ve changed tack, preferring to explain than allow writers to hazard guesses and get things badly wrong. But I’m also a lot more careful about who I talk to. I count myself particularly lucky in the writers who contributed to the monograph published about my work last year, because they were all incredibly sensitive to the issues of retaining mysteries. The novelist Marly Youmans, writing about ‘the miraculous’ in my work, produced a chapter sub-divided into a collection of short stories. They read almost as fiction, but capture better than I imagined possible what it actually feels like to be a painter. It was as though she found a small door into my head, stepped inside and stayed a while.

      I’m glad you like Saint Kevin. If you click HERE you can read the Seamus Heaney poem that inspired my paintings of him. I understand your reticence in examining background material, but it’s a ravishing poem, and I don’t think it will do anything but add to the experience of the paintings.

      • That’s so sweet! I’m so glad you still like them, as I knew it was a bit naughty to write my chapter that way rather than turning in a formal essay.

        I like being in your head (or maybe you in mine?) Not sure what’s what anymore. (Working on the Red King poems and having strange ideas about what you would do with them!)

        I think the crux of the thing with labels and explanations is what you say about “immediate answers.” If people are satisfied with such things and look no further, they miss the experience of a work of art. They seize the Cliff’s Notes shortcut and miss life.

        • I think too about the arts of ancient cultures that had intended meanings for observers contemporary with them, but are now impenetrable to us. We gaze rapt at these survivals stranded in the glass cases of museums, because we’re moved by an aesthetic, rather like someone looking at a page of writing that they can’t read, drawn by the regularity and beauty of the printed page and responding to the form rather than to meaning. The response in its way is valid… all viewers responses to a visual aesthetic are valid… but it’s not what the maker intended. Ultimately it doesn’t matter anyway. Beauty is beauty, and some will appreciate it, finding something that holds the eye and moves the heart, while others pass by. It has ever been thus.

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