We’ve all seen artwork that leaves us wondering, “what was that supposed to mean?”. It is typical of the artist to say they want to make the viewers “think” when in reality we’re being left confused or worse, unchanged, which I guess in essence the goal has been achieved considering confusing others leaves them thinking.
I have yet to meet an artist though who says this is their intention, or admit what they are presenting really doesn’t have a message, or if it does have a message then acknowledge the manner in which the work is executed is not able to relay said message, nor say they use the guise and aesthetic of contemporary art to present work as something with intellectual insight, representation, and/or meaning, but really doesn’t have meaning beyond its materials and/or true intention of being a misleading guise.
It’s easier to say a work has an intended purpose when it doesn’t at which point might have to actually explain the “non-ness” of the work. Too deep. And a little delusional even.
Why admit a work doesn’t meet a real expressed intention, or have one to begin? If we did, we might lose our tenure-track professorship at that art school, or fellowship, or gallery representation, speaking engagements, et cetera. But if this really is the goal, to leave viewers confused about a work’s purpose and meaning, then let it be said and sought after directly and with forthrightness, then there will be something of substance to explore.
To say you would like to make the viewers “think” is really a pointless goal only because we are always thinking.
Lose the vagueness and trade it for intentionality. Say what you mean, and mean what you say as the adage best informs. As an art student in college I was exposed, like most in art school, to what was considered art via mainstream media outlets such as Art In America, Sculpture Inc. Magazine, Art News and others. But luckily I had great professors who challenged me to intellectually consider how and why what was being feed as art was influencing culture and me personally.
Unfortunately though, most art students are not challenged in this way. I have seen in graduate school, and as an art professor in addition to being an artist. What is presented as art in galleries and mainstream media, is bought hook-line-and-sinker despite its having stood up rigorous inquiry or debate as to the validity of its intended purpose.
When I see a mass of materials in a gallery presented as sculptural art for example, that is presented as being something with an intended meaning to be understood by viewers, like say work by artist Richard Tuttle, and have nothing to go on but an assembly of materials and a title sheet, I’m left to assume there is something I am supposed to understand or gather.
“Fiction Fish” by Richard Tuttle
In reality though, if we’re honest towards what is actually happening, what a lot of artist want to leave viewers with is the impression that the art represents something in an enlightened manner which most just will not be able to interpret and attain intellectually. This is what I mean by guise.
When you ask a gallery curator or docent to explain works such as these, they, in my experience, go into an intellectually redundant script that is merely the spoken guise of the visual guise-artwork and by the time he/she has completed their well rehearsed script, you’re ready for a nap. (Again, in my experience.)
As Gertrude Stein said of her childhood home in Oakland in the early 30’s after revisiting it after spending most of her life abroad,
…”there is no there there.”
This absence of forthrightness and intentionality in contemporary art is only funded by a small percentage of wealthy patrons who, unfortunately, possess the majority of influence in the art world, allow artists such as those with “no there there” to continue influencing culture at large, and well to be frank, it’s unfortunate, because like sheep we all seem to gobble it up as absolute truth creating the standard for what is and is not art today.
The most helpful question posed to me while in grad school which stills guides me today and I fail at attaining albeit strive to appropriately answer with my work is,
“What do you want your work to do?”
What I say I want it to do and what it does are not always simpatico, but at least I can answer with certainty, what I want it to do and where it falls short in doing that which allows me to learn from it and re-aim for the next work.
If I wanted my work to confuse people, I would not hesitate in saying that was my goal. But this is what so much artwork these days does, but never owns up to letting it be known that’s its intention which is, in my humble opinion, cowardly.
There is a lot to Richard Tuttle’s work I do enjoy, aesthetically.
Has The Guise Movement influenced me as an artist?
-Absolutely. I was trained by modernist and postmodern artists. The influence is not all bad. Aesthetically, I enjoy a lot of it. My riff with this approach is lack of forthrightness and truthfulness. A lot in this school of thought have been taught art is whatever you say it is. If this were entirely the case, we would not art schools to tell us so. But when we go to art schools we learn craft, philosophy, and conceptual representation, which in itself contradicts art can be anything because we are taught standards.
How do I know there are artists who approach art this way, using a “guise,” or “guisement” if you want to say it that way?
-Not certain this is indeed the case, just going on what I see and hear from work and interviews of artists. Having a Bachelor’s also in Psychology has helped me discern intentions.
Do you feel hypocritical considering your own work will not be understood by all people?
-Not really because I strive for my work to be straightforward removing the why or what-questions. A good example of what I strive not to do nor to teach in my art classes comes from Texas State University this year when an art major sat outside the school’s library steps, almost entirely naked, as a way of addressing the objectification of women in our culture.
While in concept this sounds like an avant-garde approach to the topic, it is not art in a visual arts sense but is performance, which will take another article to explain the difference between because the visual arts programs throughout the U.S. have been contaminated by this misnomer that performance is just another concentration like painting, ceramics, or sculpture. It is not.
Story for the above mentioned misinformed art major from TSU: Texas State Univ art student