Sunday, December 5, 2010

Art Talk

Artists talking about their art: not sure I like that. Years ago at a literary seminar in Key West my sister and I heard presentations from some of the writers I revere: Annie Dillard, Gretel Erhlich, Terry Tempest Williams, Jim Harrison, Rick Bass, Richard Nelson, Thomas McQuane, Peter Matthiessen. These are writers who stretch their necks out to defend the Earth and all its inhabitants. These are people who have won big with their art, as in Pulitzer, et al. These are world-renowned wordsmiths, weaving wonders about the natural world.

I loved the chance to see and hear them. I loved the opportunity to connect faces with persona I had imagined over the years as I read their works. I loved seeing the energy sizzle among them as they engaged in repartee.

But, as I look back on the experience, I also feel a bit disappointed. I saw that one was pompous and unreachable. Another was an annoying drunk. Another was shy to a fault in this setting. One candidly discussed artist's ethics in a way that was less than satisfying and tainted my view of her work. I saw that one loved the spotlight, enough to damage his artistic integrity. And, blessedly, another embodied all the idealized virtues I posted for her in my imagination. These writers were, in fact, very human artists: flawed, funny, and foolish.

I see now that I wanted, with these renowned nature writers, to let their art speak for them, to let the words they struggle over, build meticulously, revise and revise, be the lasting brand in my memory, not the characters doing their impromptu acting on a Key West stage.

This notion came to mind yesterday as I explored a wonderful exhibit of my state's superior artists. The juried show contained exciting, exquisite work in varied media, including sculpture, painting, printmaking, photography, and even robotics. A close friend of mine, a landscape photographer, had a stunning entry, a black and white panoramic scene. (One of his photographs is on the cover of my book of poetry.)

All these artists were invited to share a written message about their art. My friend's words were on point, showing me a strong moral commitment to his work and our planet, as well as helping me understand why he is now working with panoramic images. My experience of his art was enhanced by the words he wrote.

But in some instances, the words were distracting, at best, and even annoying. And why was I surprised at this? These artists' media are not based in words. That realm is not their forte. One entry, from an artist I met decades ago, was particularly notable. It displayed the artist's discomfort in using words, an uneasiness I remember from my personal contact with him. Although my understanding of his work was enhanced a bit by reading the words, the piece spoke to me powerfully on its own. I didn't need his shy, terse note.

So I thought about artists writing or talking about their art, about the act of using words to embellish, explain, or justify artwork. I prefer to deal directly with the source, to read/view/hear the artpiece and arrive at my own conclusions. Create your piece, dear artist, then let me decide what I think of it.

This is not to say that artists shouldn't write or talk about their work, not at all. It's just conveying my preference for a close encounter with the art.

I've spent some time writing / talking about my work, even though it makes me a bit self-conscious to do so. For example, the preface of my poetry book, The Silence of Bright Star, explains to the reader that poetry is for me like water and that the act of writing a poem is much like that of building furniture. These explorations were intended to share with my readers underlying views about the art but, in the end, my poems speak for themselves.

Art words---talk or prose about creations---are fine supplements. But for me the artwork is the purest connection I have with an artist.


  1. Some artists are good at it, some aren't. Some *think* they are good at it and will suck all the life and interest their work may have out of it by their need to explain (and extol the glories of) every darn aspect of what it means, how it was made, how it should make you feel, etc. etc. etc. Less is always more, in my opinion.

  2. And a P.S. God save us from Artspeak--that high-falutin' BS that is designed only to make the reader/listener feel stupid.

  3. You're absolutely right, Terry. I hate that. I really enjoy reading your posts about your artistic decisions...they're insightful and fun. Plus, I like seeing the works in progress and tracking steps with you.