Bridging The Gaps
Bridging the Gaps(1)
The Nature and Responsibility of Visual Art Writing
We need to bridge the gaps and deepen the shallows of our culture.
Art is important in our era as the evidence of non-alienated action on the part of human beings. An artist creates a work because it is personally important to do so. The object or work is art when it expresses something significant about the experience or nature of existence. In its public presentation, the work enters into a dialogue with an audience. Ideally, it conveys an aspect of being that enlightens and informs the viewer.
A 15th century Florentine could encounter a Masaccio, and know what was being imparted. That individual did not have to read Alberti to view and comprehend the work. Entering the Brancacci Chapel, any adult Italian of the era of its production would recognize the stories, know the morals, and perceive the nobility of the work The knowledge required was ubiquitous and the culture was cohesive. Within 25 years of the Brancacci frescoes, the waning of cultural coherence is evidenced by Donatello's bronze David. (This, now canonical, statue was a private commission that drew on Cosimo de' Medici's interest in Neo-Platonism and extant depictions of Antinous for its youthful sensuality.)
Our society is not homogenous. American society's diversity has always been assured by immigration and insured by our values of personal liberty and expression. In the current era, the only universally shared knowledge and understanding is that which is conveyed by recent mass media. Jay Leno demonstrates this on a weekly basis with his sidewalk interviews. In these segments, individuals regularly fail to identify significant figures, such as George Washington, but unfailingly recognize media celebrities, such as George Clooney. The same holds true for events, ideas and objects.
The priorities and values of mass media are market driven. Contemporary American popular culture is defined by the attempt to maximize profits in the near term. Hence, Victor and Hugo are known as animated gargoyles, and Noah is shown to be blond and blue-eyed. Those concerns and values that are not perceived to enhance profits fall to the realm of other conveyances, including art.
The paltry nature of common knowledge and comprehension makes it a responsibility of the arts writer to communicate and make understandable the goals and vocabulary of the art under consideration. The writer must place the work in an appropriate context. In particular, the reviewer must elucidate the meaning or meaningfulness of the work. Only in doing so can the work be evaluated. This is particularly true in the Capital Region where most serious exhibition spaces' mission is cultural or intellectual apprehension. This contrasts with other areas, such as New York City, where the majority of serious exhibition spaces are commercial galleries.
Much of the best art produced in this region reflects the significant proportion of artists who have been drawn to the area, either as students or faculty, by the concentration of colleges and universities. These individuals tend to be highly educated with diverse points of reference. As a result, their art is intellectually alert, culturally engaged, and self-reflective. Worthwhile writing about such work must be informed and articulate.
We read about the arts to gain greater understanding. Published arts writing carries a greater weight than presenting a superficial description and the author's personal taste. It is often what has been written about art and artists that gives us much of our sense of the significance of the artwork we see. This is not a recent development - art appreciation would be greatly diminished without the writing of the likes of Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) and Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947). Art writing is also an important aspect of the dialogue artists and curators require in order to proceed in their ongoing engagement with the business of exploring and explicating the nature of human experience. As such, it is a form of cultural analysis or criticism
As is frequently noted on WAMC's Media Project, the Capital District has one of the highest per capita newspaper circulations in the United States. Periodicals, especially newspapers, are the principal means through which we receive information and evaluation of art presented in the region. What is printed becomes the record of the region's visual art culture. Just as the art and artists it relies on for its existence, arts writing should aspire to enrich and enlighten its audience.
Jim Richard Wilson
Jim Richard Wilson is Director of Rathbone Gallery and Art History Lecturer for the Sage Colleges. He is an officer on the Boards of the Albany/Schenectady League of Arts and the Broadway Gallery Group, and serves on the Art Advisory Committee for Albany Center Galleries. He is also an exhibiting artist. Among his recent writings for publication are: A Place By the Sea, Sage Colleges, 1999 and Cuneiform Currency included in Toward a Second Dimension: A Sociology Reader, McGuire & Pertusati ed., Kendall/Hunt, 1998.