We had an interesting debate in college a week ago on the subject of whether to talk and write about one’s art or whether it is better to let it speak for itself. I found myself rather reluctantly on the side in favour of not speaking – always difficult for me! I thought that I would have some difficulty coming up with any reasons to keep quiet but having got over the slightly trite comment that talking gives me a headache I discovered that I was warming to the idea. There are artists who chose not to give any narrative about their work and I confess that in the past I have found this rather unhelpful of them. On the other hand I now realise that it does actually limit a viewer’s interpretation. If you tell everything there is to tell you do run a number of risks. Firstly you set your work in a specific context which while on the face of it might be considered helpful can also be quite restrictive. It denies people the right to create their own narrative about the work. The first significant piece of work that I sold was called ‘Don’t Put me in a Box’. For me it was a deep and meaningful piece about labelling and about wanting to break out of any category that people decided to put me in. For the person who bought it, to my confusion, it was apparently about blocks of cheese. I tried to tell him otherwise but I gave up. Now I realise that I was right to stop. Interpretation is personal and I should not be trying to impose my thoughts on others unless they wish to know.
Should I let this work speak for itself or should I explain my idea?
A second reason for letting the work speak for itself is that you run the risk of setting it in stone, within a specific era which might reduce the understanding of people who come after you. My boxes referenced Myers Briggs but who is to say that anyone in the next 100 years will have any understanding of their theory of personality types. Indeed, I rather hope that they do not!
Of course there are other things which suggest you should keep quiet. If the art is good enough, surely it can speak for itself? Its meaning should come through the work and if it isn’t good enough then perhaps you should not have put it out there in the first place! On the other hand I find myself wondering how those artists who prefer to remain quiet ever get noticed at all. Do they really rely entirely on the work or do they have some rich or influential patron who pushes it into the limelight and talks it up for them? If so, would they like to pop in and visit me and let me know where to find such an envoi! Edmund de Waal comments that ‘Ceramics is an art whose practitioners have become peculiarly suited to silence. Their silence about their work and that of their peers has become a symbol for their seriousness as artists, in a way that is radically different from other arts. The truly authentic and serious potter is one who unknowingly makes pots, whose artistic journey is unmapped.’ Well there are several points about this statement which I have difficulty digesting. Not least I am left wondering what that says about de Waal himself since no-one would suggest that he is silent about his work! But there certainly are ceramic artists who have been extremely reluctant to speak about their work, Lucie Rie, whose pots ‘speak for themselves’ (Bernard leach) for one.
I confess that I do not trust my work to shout loudly enough yet, which is why my open studio display is littered with short explanations of the work on view.
There are others who believe that, however silent an artist chooses to be about their work, ‘nothing has a silent life, that everything exists in context, things talk to one another, discourse occurs whether we want it to or not.’ (Kate Starkey talking about the views of Jeffry Jones.)
Of course the ultimate irony for me personally is that I would not be writing this blog if I wanted my art simply to speak for itself. Indeed I suspect that the development of rapid, web-based communication makes it increasingly difficult to be silent. There is an expectation that all artists will have a presence on social media and that without it they are nothing. Certainly the current open Studios even at Wimbledon Artist Studios, in which I am taking part, has highlighted for me the need to have business cards, blurb, website, social media presence etc, etc and to be prepared to discuss the thinking behind my work with those who chose to come and visit the artists in their workplace. It would be rude not to engage these people in conversation about the work they have come to view.
It is also quite amusing that the debate in college coincided neatly with the handing in of a 4000 word essay on our practice. If we wished the work to speak for itself we could probably have saved ourselves the exercise, although I suppose we would risk failing the diploma which at this late stage would seem a bit of a shame.