Do We Miss the Mark by Expecting too Much from Art?

A few weeks ago, right after we opened at APT Gallery, I met art historian and curator Ben Street at the conclusion of Three Fields, a show he curated at No Format Gallery of works by Emma Cousin, Matthew Luck Galpin, & Charles Olgilvie. We had a lovely discussion about curation, abstraction, and whether there was any truth behind the idea of a ‘centre of art’ in the art world, which Ben discussed with art history PhD candidate Nicole – another American. Ben asked me how This ‘Me’ of Mine was going. I said I was very pleased with the turnout for the opening at APT and I was hopeful for some reviews of the show. Ben commented on how difficult it was to get reviews and as curator it’s really good to have that after doing all that work. I agreed and replied, “it’s not about the attention though, I kind of hope someone says ‘this is crap’ so I can respond and engage the debate. After all this work, I want to discuss it.” My response pleased Ben, which pleased me.

I’ve been granted my wish, not from an art critic, but from a member of ‘the audience’, Jeremy. I use that term because he referred to himself as ‘the audience’, I’ve always felt slightly uncomfortable with that phrase because it is very grand and seems it should be followed by an acknowledgment of the orchestra in the pit. Jeremy and I had a stimulating discussion about the role of the audience in art presentation and how often it is disregarded and dismissed. This topic is significant for me as a curator and new organisational director because it is the very issue I want to address in this work. As an artist, I’ve been concerned with this issue for a long time.

Jeremy wrote this statement in response to seeing This ‘Me’ of Mine in Folkestone:

“These thoughts are in no way a criticism of the artists, their works or the curator. All creativity is an inspired blessing and as such any thoughts here are purely ideas and observations and wandering impressions.

What initially struck me was the scale and scope of the curator’s objectives summarising this ‘Me of Mine’. A fascinating exploration, philosophical bordering on the metaphysical and indeed a subject demanding debate in the round? Indeed, the excitement and challenge generated prompted the immediate question – ‘How far was such a debate explored and extended by the exhibits?’ In short the answer was ‘Not very deeply and not very far’ but this was primarily the fault of the exhibits, but this is a fundamental challenge to art at any level. As an example take Iris’ Stocking. To what extent was perception and interpretation informed by having the delightful back story explained? The answer has to be ‘hugely so’ and this therefore begs the question of the impacts of the piece in its own rights – without the context of the back story. This question of context being a theme of the curator the juxtaposition of ideas here is beautifully complex! And yet the question of how well the works perform in their own right is troubling. I won’t waste time with banal considerations of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ here but a central function of any arts piece should be provocation. Indeed, at an intellectual or aesthetic level the audience should be challenged, enraged, amused, amazed, blown away or any other emotion you would care to mention or intellectualise and yet most pieces failed to achieve this. ‘Why?’ or ‘What’s the point?’are stunningly good questions if the audience  are provoked to explore such simple yet complex questions rather than use them as articles of fleeting criticism.

Related to the question of provocation as function is the question of dexterity of form. If the piece operates on an intellectual level when the audience is provoked to what extent might they enjoy the piece on an emotional level either due to provocation of idea or the form of the piece in its own right. Such a question is difficult but the issue of dexterity must come to the fore. Perhaps the Glass Menagerie is a useful example. Ostensibly a collection of everyday animal trinkets arranged with a minimum of dexterity on an everyday table, how can the audience be expected [to engage] on an emotional level? Sadly this challenge also applied to several other pieces. Such opening up of the artistic process to those not naturally ‘gifted’ is to be thoroughly recommended at an individual level but when placed in front of an audience different criteria are at work. If it looks mundane, sounds, mundane and feels mundane then it probably is mundane!?

And yet I finish by being confounded by my own arguments. Having been prompted to spend an enjoyable hour thinking, reflecting, arguing with myself and ultimately to articulate vague, half formed ideas I have to thank the curator and all the artists involved for a wonderful experience.”

Jeremy Wilson

My first response to Jeremy’s criticism to provocation by the artworks and their failure to do so is – this expectation is a limitation, unrealistic and a function of the ‘society of the spectacle’ as discussed in Guy Debord’s book by the same name, the postmodern world in other words. That is not to suggest however, that artworks should not strive to achieve this, but the desire for artworks to ‘provoke’, I suggest, is the result of a consumerist society. What happens if this expectation is removed and the artworks are viewed on face value – ‘what you see is what you get’, which is related to J.G. Ballard’s quote, ‘you find what you’re looking for’. If this were the expectation rather than provocation Jeremy would feel justified to like or dislike a work and not feel troubled that somehow the work was lacking because it didn’t provoke or that his own intellect was lacking because he ‘didn’t get it’. If this expectation to provoke was removed, artists would also feel less pressure to be shocking or provocative. How much art is made to this aim? And how numb have we become to this measure? I can answer that and I’m sure you can too. Without the expectation to provoke perhaps art would be made to communicate instead, which I suggest is as provocative a stroke as any contrivance to provocation.

An area of art which I find sorely lacking is the reading of art, not only by viewers but by artists as well. The notion that the art work should ‘speak for itself’ is an out-dated modernist approach to viewing art. It was an aim of Abstract Expressionism for viewers to feel a response directly as a result of the artists’ interactions with paint and canvas, a desire to elicit emotion from the viewer. The reading of art must be in tune with the times just as the production of art is tuned into its time. We no longer live in a post-war world. We live in a world of information and hyper-connectivity with media overload as a constant in our lives. I suggest because of this and as a result of this a contextual communication with art is appropriate, necessary and beneficial. However, this is not without risk. There is a fine line between too much information and not enough. Nor is this meant to suggest it is no longer possible or appropriate to have an aesthetic experience with art. I’m suggesting an openness to both the aesthetic experience and the contextual information. Art made to provoke ideas is not going to be in your face, and expectations of grandeur may not be appropriate for all works of art. A flexible approach to viewing art requires a flexible approach to expectation, or in other words, match the expectation to the art. Some of the most stunning works I have ever seen have also been the most quiet and unassuming (Vija Celmins comes to mind). Jeremy’s claim that art works should challenge the audience, enrage them amuse, amaze or blow them away is a hefty demand. I don’t disagree with this, but it is important I think to realise the depth of this expectation. He later mentions a ‘provocation to ideas’ by an artwork. Now that is a more realistic expectation and one which I agree every artist should attain in their work.

He goes on to suggest dexterity in the production of an artwork must ‘come to the fore’, to use his phrase. While I agree fine craftsmanship is important in the production of art, I question the notion that this has to be exhibited through the display of exceptional manual skills, which seems to be what Jeremy is seeking. His criticism of the ordinariness of the table and minimally dexterous arrangement of the animals in Cathy Lomax’s Glass Menagerie, I suggest is part of the sensibility of the work and it’s in this sensibility where the ‘dexterity’ lies. In a post-conceptual world (if that is indeed where we are) sensibilities, observations, linkages, appropriations, constructions and symbolisms all carry weight in being exceptional, not just in the dexterity of manual skill, which could also be called mastery. A mastery of linking observations can be a subtle thing, but its subtlety does not mean it is not masterful. Careful observation of the mundane is likely to produce a work which appears mundane. A failure to recognize the subject of the piece as the mundane, for example, will almost certainly miss the mastery in the observation of the subject. Presumably, when Jeremy uses the word ‘mundane’ he also suggests ‘mediocre’? If this is the case, where in fact does the mediocrity lie? I ask that not in criticism of Jeremy’s intellect which I found to be well above average; his willingness to bother to engage as deeply as he did also indicates a stance well beyond the mean. But the fact remains that perception remains a barrier.  Is the work and/or the presentation a mediocrity if it is perceived as such? Is it a mediocrity and possibly a failure if the depth and layers of meaning have not been recognised? Can this barrier be breached without the risk of being dictatorial? How much information is too much and when is too little a detriment? We can never know because we can never know the mind of another. Do we give up then?

I would defend Cathy’s work by suggesting she displays a mastery of form through the repetitive visual motifs in the film aspect of Glass Menagerie which she overlays onto similar shapes and forms in her table of glass animals. Also the appropriation of the themes in Tennessee Williams play have bearing on the meaning of the piece, adding a conceptual layering which mirrors the layering of light and shadow in her piece. Jeremy and I had an interesting discussion comparing Cathy’s work with Kate Murdoch’s, It’s The Little Things as both pieces use the placement of objects. Jeremy responded positively to Kate’s work appreciating and acknowledging the ‘dexterity’ involved in Kate’s careful arrangement of objects. However, the randomness of Cathy’s objects was a barrier for him. Once I pointed out the repetition of forms i.e. the swan in the film (which he had not recognized as a swan) and the swan figurines, and explained some of the concepts in Williams’ play, which Jeremy wasn’t familiar with; he felt he should consider the piece further – a gain for communication.

I was in Asda and overheard this brief exchange between Jason and his mum:

Mum: “Jason will you stop following me around everywhere.”

Jason: “I have to.”

This remarkable response from a child who implicitly understood the dynamic of his position in relationship to his mum I think holds the key to communication through art as something like this:

In a multiplicity of subjectivity (much like being in Asda or any other mega superstore chain):

From those who don’t question: “Will you stop explaining and demanding.”

Response from those who question: “I have to.”

Jeremy is not wrong to find a lack and he is not lacking because he perceived a lack. The artwork is not mundane because Jeremy found it so, nor is it exalted because its meaning was not perceived; it is what it is and Jeremy is who he is. Hopefully a willingness to question will help us to come together to breach the barriers. I think Jeremy presents the answer to his own questions by writing: “Having been prompted to spend an enjoyable hour thinking, reflecting, arguing with myself and ultimately to articulate vague half formed ideas I have to thank the curator and all the artists involved for a wonderful experience.” That’s all we wanted we wanted to provoke, so I think we succeeded.

Thank you Jeremy, for presenting the views of ‘the audience’, and a round of applause for the orchestra in the pit.

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24 thoughts on “Do We Miss the Mark by Expecting too Much from Art?

    • janeboyer says:

      Indeed! Your reading of Cathy’s work is spot on, from my point of view anyway. I’d be interested to know if your insights would interest Jeremy, I suspect they would.

  1. what a wonderful and mutually respectful unwrapping of the complexities of the relationship between artwork and viewer – great stuff

    • janeboyer says:

      Thanks Susan! Yes, it was a stimulating and thoroughly interesting discussion I had with Jeremy. I of course ask for his permission to publish his thoughts and offered right to rebut, so hope he will join us here for further discussion.

      This issue is related to your own experience recently which you wrote about on your blog of a viewer dismissing an accompanying text.

  2. helen says:

    Good article and great food for the solitary artist, thanks. My local gallery has hosted a recent run of unsubtle, ugly and very badly made installation works. In plain terms, the works pissed me off so much it got under my skin. I was definitely provoked by the works. I spent time thinking about them and discussing them in retrospect with others, and even now they still remain fresh in my mind. So the artists have achieved their goal to engage me with their work.
    I think artists who work in this way are probably courageous… and probably publicly funded! Good luck to them.

    • janeboyer says:

      Thanks Helen. Yes, it is complex work to present art which communicates its message and provokes a response. But that is just the thing, if the response from viewers is not the response desired by the artist has the artist(s) failed? I suggest no they have not and I hope artists are open to this. Eliciting a response is the aim, no response is a failure, a response other that the one intended is an open horizon.

  3. Beverley says:

    As an artist driven to paint and to respond visually, physically and emotionally to my experiences, and as an artist who is unable to distinguish the difference between painting and any other of the essential life processes, the thought that my own output has expectations of ‘provocation’, or any other, is alarming. If my process bore the infinite possibilities of expectation in mind I venture that my output could no longer be trusted as authentic or genuine. And I understand that to others, my own work may not have value, but I would hope that it has a place and makes a contribution, even if only on a more poetic level. If an exhibition ‘sets out it’s stall’, presents a theme or poses a question at the outset and the works on show are presented as the artists response to it, then that throws down the gauntlet for debate with an audience. With a more generic or eclectic approach perhaps the ‘audience’ is challenged to be more open to the experience on their own terms.

    • janeboyer says:

      Thanks for your comments Beverley. I agree the pressure of expectation is an alarming one for most artists. I often wonder how artists who have made it to ‘blue chip’ status actually feel about this pressure and possibly other demands on them and their work. Regarding the challenge to the audience, I think both scenarios should account for a viewers’ experience on their own terms. Just because a theme has been presented doesn’t change the fact of viewer engagement and the subjectivity of this, in a way this scenario should possibly present more opportunity for a subjective viewing experience because a theme gives a topic for discussion. However, I see what you mean that a more generic or eclectic approach to the presentation of art might offer a more casual interaction. Either way, I feel viewers should be encouraged to engage without feeling that somehow they’ve got it wrong if they don’t respond to the work. Likewise, a misjudgement of artistic intention by an inappropriate expectation, potentially means ‘viewing on their own terms’ completely misses the point. It’s a knotty problem without any easy answers.

      • Beverley says:

        Thanks for your reply Jane. I agree re both scenarios and subjectivity… To me they are both valid approaches for offering viewer engagement.

        If I imagine the many possible variants in artist expectations and in viewer expectations I can see how knotty the problem could be. But I am only driven by my own personal enquiry and have no expectations of the viewer at all at the time the work is being made. I do, however, hold the belief that within the diverse mix of human nature I will have my fair share of human beings who can feel a connection with it – as will all artists. I know how and why I make my work and I feel no need for the viewer to ‘get it’ on my terms. I agree with Wollflin ‘We always project a corporeal state conforming to our own; we interpret the outside world according to the expressive system with which we have become familiar from our own bodies.’ The artist does this. The viewer does this. And if we are lucky, we make connections.

      • janeboyer says:

        I absolutely agree with you Beverley. That in fact, is the beauty and importance of art, that communication of observation and experience which connects with others. If we didn’t have art we would be in an isolation from other experience, something which is very difficult to conceive of completely I think.

        I work in a very similar way as you describe, I know what is behind my work but I don’t expect a viewer to understand that absolutely, because it isn’t possible to know what’s in another’s mind. What is possible is the expression of experience which is universally shared. I had an interesting experience just the other day with another gentleman who had been involved with art in a former life, he worked for a gallery in Denmark he said. He seemed currently to be in hard times. It was amazing though when he looked at my piece in the show, he said, ‘wow, that looks like you just got it straight through the heart, like you’ve been blown away.’ That is exactly what the piece is about for me personally. So that reading can happen through universal experience, it’s just not something that I expect from every viewer. I guess, what I’m saying is I’m delighted if it happens but am not worried if it doesn’t because it’s an expectation which is unrealistic on my part for the audience, if that makes sense.

        I love the quote you mention. Exactly!

  4. codedimages says:

    An interesting discussion you had there Jane. Reading this post provoked a thought.

    ‘its message’ ? I don’t have a message, so in one sense I cannot fail. In any case fail is not a word I use. All I see is a line between indifference and engagement and each work appears somewhere on that line. Where it appears on the line depends on the viewer. I had a tutor at college who questioned my work (the work I was doing then) suggesting it was incomprehensible. I pointed out that not everything has to be comprehensible to him. It is comprehensible to me and, although I am an individual, there will be others who share some of my experience and they may comprehend too. My work is made for me and as a side-effect for them as well. If exposed sufficiently the work will find its own audience.

    • janeboyer says:

      Thanks David. I would challenge you (and have) on the idea that your work doesn’t have ‘a message’. I think I used the word ‘meaning’ in my reply to Jeremy, which I suggest is not a strict boundary of exploration. What I mean is, the sense of ‘meaning’ or ‘message’ is not limited to trying to convey a moral or present a humanistic conundrum. I’ll use your two works in the show for example. Your exploration in EP bar Blues of the perceptual boundary between what is considered static and what is considered kinetic, which you state in your notes on the piece, is as much a message and has as much meaning as if you presented the question, ‘what does it mean to experience stasis in a kinetic world?’, for example. Likewise, in your Twitter User Names: Coded and Transcribed, the choice to transcribe contemporary social media user names into a war era messaging code carries meaning and a message of coded communications, one which was used in military settings the other a personal communications system. I suggest that is bloated with meaning, if that isn’t too gross to say.

      What you do is present your work in an objective manner using objective terminology, but that doesn’t mean there is not meaning or a message behind that. You perhaps are not concerned to present these enquiries in any sort of moralistic, sociological or humanistic sense, but the fact that you have these questions which you feel compelled to explore carries meaning, you’re just not particularly interested in that, but it’s still there.

      I agree with your response to your tutor. I hope your tutor was saying your work was incomprehensible in a well meaning way, hoping to help you to communicate with clarity. Anything other than that would be out of order, in my opinion. But hey, we can’t change history.

      • codedimages says:

        Message and meaning there may well be, but I did not have any of that in my concious mind while making the work.

        What I did have is a coincidence of stimuli and experience, plus a what if attitude. What if I obfuscate this video to a point where the original subject no longer exists. What if I slow down the frame rate to a point where it is impossible to clearly track the visual changes. What if I respond to new twitter followers in a highly structured way. What if I obfuscate that response using a cipher. What if I use a historical cipher and give the possibility for the recipient to decode my response.

        A small percentage of recipients have recognised my stylised cipher and decoded it. My tutor got what he was looking for. A well reasoned response. He was the course leader. I got a 1st.

      • janeboyer says:

        Yes, that is my point. A ‘what if’ attitude is seeking possibility and the juxtaposition of your choices carry their own meaning whether you intend it, think about it or not. The idea that ‘meaning’ or ‘a message’ is a certain thing based in intention is what I’m challenging. I am suggesting a broader scope for what is ‘meaning and what is ‘a message’; something that happens with or without intention.

        Well done you for having the fortitude to give a reasoned response, but then I would expect nothing less.

  5. codedimages says:

    A second thought occurred.

    You chose my work for TMoM after it was made. It was not made for TMoM. For a brief moment I am wondering how my work might change if made for TMoM. Indeed I wonder how all the artists might now respond to TMoM. I am not suggesting we do that. The subject of TMoM is not one I would choose for myself.

    The thought has already passed.

    • janeboyer says:

      I think my response is, ‘hey, you can’t change history’.

      I’m sure every piece in the show would be completely different. I’m not sure I like making work to fit a theme, I certainly have never liked trying to make work to fit a theme for an open call, so I can’t see how it would be any different for any other sort of exhibition. As I write this it occurs to me, this kind of ‘invitation’ to make work to match a theme is an expectation and one I personally don’t care for. That’s not to suggest this shouldn’t be done, I’m certain many artists enjoy the challenge of this, I just find it uncomfortable.

      I prefer to use what exists anyway, because there’s way too much underused art sitting in dusty corners!

      • codedimages says:

        Thinking about it, I did make TUNCaT for TMoM. TUNCaT didn’t exist until you asked for a real-world version of TUNC. So, the concept was already there but the specific realisation was ‘commissioned’. That is a pretty good model for how I would like to work. Getting the commissions is the tough part.

      • janeboyer says:

        Indeed you are right.

  6. David Minton says:

    Bits of this echo my conversation with Ruth Geldard at Folkestone. I am constantly puzzled, in that I come to artworks with a mind both closed and open, I think. My problem is to allow the work to pick my mental locks. I arrive with ‘expectations’ in that I am disposed to think in ways historically formed. A mismatch frequently occurs between my ‘expectations’ and the experience. It’s interesting to see the way in which conversations -such as this- gradually form and become directed (limited) around and by terms such as ‘expectations.’ that become insistent. If I describe my ‘expectations’ as my ‘tastes’ the term ’taste’ opens up possibilities. It may be that as an artist I ought not to expect anything. On the contrary, my tastes must be engaged by the experience. And again, in relation to terms that mould conversation, the idea of taste needs some elaboration. My visual ‘taste’ is an element of my ‘Self’. Are we here discussing the ways in which our ‘Selves’ engage with and are created by experience? All my attitudes, dispositions are functions of ‘taste’ . Taste expressed is objective evidence of subjective value(s). When Jane writes of an ‘….outdated modernist way of viewing art..’ she underlines the passing of time, and the shifting of value. The problem with the ‘modernist’ approach is that the modernist is looking for (and consequently regretting the loss) of something of value that is no longer there; the argument then becomes a defence of value disguised as an argument about art. But then, art is value. Just hold the high ground.

    • Ruth Geldard says:

      David I think you have described so well the mental paradox of seeing/experiencing/processing an artwork and in identifying the relevance of “expectations”. I think we are all part Pavlov’s dogs bringing our pre-conditioning and random predjudices with us and that there is just no such thing as an “open” mind. Perhaps a way forward might be to focus solely and selfishly on the gut/bodies (unique) reaction and view with interest, and even fascination where that leaves our “tastes”. There may be a parallel with meditation here, in that rather than silence the “chatter” in our minds, we allow it to rumble on and just turn it down a bit.

      Thanks to Jane for starting this very stimulating thread.

      • janeboyer says:

        Thanks Ruth, you’re very welcome. I’m delighted you all have joined the discussion so thanks go to all of you. Indeed that is a compelling thought that there is no such thing as an ‘open mind’. This has become a euphemism hasn’t it? But that is all the more reason to stay flexible and perhaps that is in fact what ‘keeping an open mind’ euphemistically means. We can never fully move beyond the boundaries of our experience can we? It would be like trying to undo our bodies molecule by molecule.

    • janeboyer says:

      Thank you David, your insights are always welcome. I would suggest what we’re discussing here is flexibility. It is undoubtedly the case that we all are formed by our experiences, which forms our tastes and expectations. The trouble is when we become or take an inflexible position when we bump into other’s tastes and expectations we lose an opportunity to question and develop – but I don’t need to tell anyone that I don’t think, I think we all know that. The issue with regard to this inflexible position in the arts is one of barriers, hostilities and exclusions. I’m suggesting we need to remember to be flexible and ask questions, just as Jeremy did.

      I appreciate your further definition of my statements on the ‘outdated Modernist way of viewing art’. I think what you say is very true.

  7. David Minton says:

    At the risk of becoming too focused on the detail of argument here, I am sidling toward the idea that one person’s prejudice is another’s belief.
    The ‘modernist’ response to the experience of art is a gut reaction named taste; those whose guts have been best educated are those with the most refined judgements.
    The gut reaction and the judgement of taste are initially the same thing. In being a first and apparently visceral response they serve to short-circuit considered reflection. And at an intuitive level, they affirm the self that expresses them. They ensure cultural cohesion. The dictates of the gut-reaction demand that beliefs remain intact. There are then no random prejudices. Prejudices are necessary but not necessarily consistent with each other. Rather than suggest that there is no such thing as an open mind, might it be possible to ask under what circumstances a mind might be ‘open and what does it mean? The mind must be open ‘to’ something in order for change (creativity) to occur.

    • janeboyer says:

      Thanks David. I think the crux of this is the idea of ‘education’ in both the formulation of tastes/prejudices and for the effort to open minds. I agree with your summation of the modernist experience being a gut reaction, however, it was a long and seemingly arduous process to teach people how to receive this gut reaction for the reading of the artists’ work. It didn’t just happen or just to the educated few, though they may have been most flexible (open) to receiving the concepts of this new way of viewing art. However, it could also be that those living in a raw reality could also have come rapidly to this understanding, though history probably only records those who spoke for the time, not those who lived it necessarily, if you know what I mean. I think Ruth’s suggestion that there is no such thing as an open mind, suggests the fact of our inability to move beyond the limitations of the context which has formed us. Yes, we do move beyond those things with the passage of time but their influence remains and it is this which is so hard to move away from. We do, of course, rebel against some influences but they leave their mark which can never fully be erased. An open mind, in the sense of a spotless mind, cannot happen once we experience the world around us and so the best we can do is to find way to be flexible. (If that makes sense and doesn’t just make a circle around the house!)

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