Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Hunters in the Snow (Winter),1565 (detail).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Hunters in the Snow (Winter),1565 (detail).

Tottenham Corner

Memory, Narrative, Liminality and Bloviation

Running the words “memory, narrative, perception, artist statement” into an Internet browser unleashes a veritable torrent of results. Take this: “I am interested in narrative, memory and the influence of place upon our perception of these topics.” And this: “Most of my work is centered on issues and processes of perception, memory, personal narrative, and the construction of meaning over time.” Even these two random samples are enough to send one to sleep. And there is so much more. Here’s one from a highly respected artist: “My work creates dialectics between monuments and artifacts in order to examine the influence of perception on history, truth and reality.”

Memory, perception, narrative, history, time, place, truth, reality: simple to define as they are when used in regular conversation, these words—pandemic in the art world—become vague and ultimately meaningless when artists grasp onto them in an attempt to justify their often dubious output. If a regular Joe, over a couple of beers, told a friend that he was interested in these things, he would sound like a complete imbecile. Even if a so-called artist said as much during the course of a conversation, he would sound like a complete imbecile. Deep down, isn’t everybody interested in these things? It seems absurd to state it at all. But it is an important part of the contemporary artist’s “practice” to muddy the waters in order to make them appear deep, and to drain the meaning out of simple words.

And not so simple words: “My practice investigates liminal experiences and how they affect the individual. The ephemerality of these transitional states allows for movement while lacking stability.”

Liminality is another key word for artists who want their work to be taken seriously. Webster’s defines it as “1: of or relating to a sensory threshold. 2: barely perceptible.” Then one looks at what this bloviation purports to describe and one is struck by the discordant contrast between the flatulence of the description and the vacuity of the actual work. In this case, something that looks like the leftovers from a yard sale scattered across the gallery floor. The artist goes on to state that his “praxis addresses questions of historical and traditional truths.” The uglier and more unfathomable the work, the more turgid the accompanying explanation. Flaubert’s aphorism that “The more words there are on a gallery wall next to a picture, the worse the picture” has never been more relevant.

Rather than seeking to clarify, which is surely the object of a statement, this circular language obfuscates, frequently to the point where the lay reader is lost before they even reach the end of the first sentence. But it is not meant for the lay reader, and it is highly unlikely that anybody beyond the confines of an increasingly insular art world will ever read it. For what purpose can art possibly serve if it can be understood by regular people? At least it keeps the critics in business, for without critical exegesis it couldn’t exist; and artists who cannot back up their “inquiries” with theory-addled mumbo jumbo that would have Walter Benjamin rolling in his grave are dismissed.

On the subject of liminality, crossing the threshold of many galleries these days often prompts the question: Where’s the art? Stick a wig on the end of a pole, prop it against a wall, call it art, and expect other people to call it art. Well, it’s in a gallery, so it must be art. And the artist had years on end of theory crammed into them at an expensive art school, so it must be art. The art school system permits the artist to think of themself as a magician: Whatever they touch turns into art. Especially here in Los Angeles, the overflowing toilet of the art world—home to some of the most exacting art schools in the world, where those all-important connections are made that insure that one’s work will at least be shown endlessly among one’s colleagues and teachers and a subsequently expanding network of well-connected, mutually supportive, often independently wealthy, art-damaged young people who are able to give their complete attention to their work and that of their friends.

But how would it look if it wasn’t in a gallery? That question, of course, is gauche, uninformed and irrelevant. The only people who enter the gallery are going to be in on the joke. And in such a potentially lucrative milieu—fortunately for pretentious artists there are enough pretentious wealthy collectors to support such a system—why concern yourself with that quaint and mythical place known as the real world?

After all, it does no harm; it is merely a means of circulating money. Out of all the arts, the world of “fine art”—with the various “disciplines” it encompasses—is the one that is least dependent on popular support, the most elitist and potentially fraudulent, and therefore the easiest one for somebody who is opportunistic and talentless to thrive in. But it is also the most transient medium, the one in which posterity is most selective. How many AbExers can you name? Nine or 10. How many Surrealists, Pop Artists, etc? About the same. The canon quickly falls into place, and minor figures are seldom reevaluated. Considering how many artists pass through the system, it is remarkable how few are remembered. You can write your statements and have your shows, your friends and colleagues will show up and pretend to “get it,” but history will not be so kind.  

This practice of constructing appropriately rigorous artist’s statements is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Perhaps it’s a pity that it wasn’t more prevalent in the past; then perhaps we could have truly understood where the Old Masters were coming from. Take Bruegel, for example. His statement might have read something like this:

“I use painting to transform familiar genres of representation. A seemingly wide range of subjects, including landscapes, religious allegories and peasant life is subsumed by the arrangement of images. I investigate the conjuring of place through physicality by exploring the materiality of public and private spaces and their relationship to cultural identity, memory and perception. For example, a village in winter seen from the perspective of a returning party of hunters contains a narrative and history that transcends the importance of distinct placement; the image becomes an attempt to visualize liminality through repetition and manipulation.”

At last, it all makes sense.