Titles and the wrong way to look at art
Last weekend I was at an art show comprised of fifty pieces from fifty different artist. Fifty windows into someone else’s unique reality or expression if you like. Fifty different titles. This caused me to look at the different approach artists take when titling a work. I think this is a struggle for many artist, myself included. When creating an artwork often meaning is discovered in the process or even after it is complete. The meaning can change over time and is different to each viewer. So in some ways putting a title on a work is idiotic, it makes no sense, the art is its own title and speaks for itself. To come up with a few words that are viewer’s first impression is like putting your artwork in a cage. Regardless, an ongoing series of ‘untitled X’ (a pretty sweet title actually) gets old and is useless for keeping inventory. So at least what I try and do is create a title that has something to do with my sculpture but doesn’t give away too much of my own thoughts about the piece. This is not always an easy task and is sometimes more successful than others. As a viewer though you can avoid the risk.
When I am approaching a new piece of art I do not first look at the title card. It is tempting and I see many people go directly to it, this is the wrong way to view art. The card is full of information that really has nothing to do with the art. Title, description, and worst of all price. How often has this happened?
Walking over to a painting you look down at the card and see $100,000. “Holy shit that’s a lot of money! This painting better change my life,” “who would pay that much for that? That seems crazy” and then you walk away confused and disappointed. It should go more like this:
Walk over to the painting. Look at it. Not a glance. Look top to bottom, look at the center and out to every edge, find the most distant part of the painting and the closest. Walk up close, step back. Now that you have an idea of the painting, now that you have let it into your brain and just before you are about to move to the next one, now look at the info. “Wow $100,000 that is a lot, cool painting though, I wish I was rich.”
Next Painting: ‘Jungle Fever’ and it was inspired by the struggles of people in the Congo. It is priced at five thousand dollars. By reading that you have created a box for the painting without ever having looked at it. Before you read that you could have seen anything in the painting. It would have spoken to you with purity of thought. Through your own frame of reference you would have formed a unique experience. A private conversation between you and the art. Maybe the painting would have instilled sadness and loss in you but you connect that sadness with something in your own life. Or the painting may have placed you in the jungle and not made you sad but nostalgic for a simpler life. Furthermore you could not have had the slightest clue what is going on in the painting. That is okay, in fact let yourself sit in the unknowing for a moment it is a useful place to be. If you do give your brain the opportunity to puzzle over the unfamiliar, which in a globalized ‘familiar’ world is all too uncommon, you will find in time that experience is valuable and you will tune in to the dialogue of the artworks. You may even become addicted or at least grow to cherish these moments with the unknown.
If a painting isn’t speaking to you don’t sweat it. That painting probably isn’t for you or just come back to it if you are compelled. And sure once you give some time to the art you can look at the info and have a nice moment of ‘oh that’s what I thought about it’ or ‘whoa, that is not what I was seeing.’ And who knows maybe you’ll get an ‘ooo I can actually afford that.’ (Probably not though, the expense of art is a blog post for another day) That is what the info card is there for. To tell you more about the piece and the artist after you view it.
Now go out to an art show and test this. I guarantee you there is an art show happening near you this week. Maybe even tonight. Don’t be afraid. Go get some free wine and pick an artwork that jumps out at you; look at it while you finish your wine and if someone asks you what you think you don’t even have to tell them. The interaction with the art can be personal. If you do answer that’s great and there is no wrong answer.
Well. If you are viewing Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ and they make you joyful then you are for sure a mass murderer; that doesn’t mean it was the wrong answer it just means you should seek help.
My point is viewing art is an act of discovery and courage. It takes courage for the artist to put that piece of themselves on display and it takes courage, as a viewer, to let it in. To let it affect you. Still more courage to share and talk about how it affected you with others. If you have the courage to do this you will benefit from stimulating conversation and self-discovery. Just like anything that takes courage this comes more naturally to some people. If you are not one of those people than this is a challenge for you and the up side is that if you meet the challenge you have the most to discover.
Afterthought: If you are an artist and you are thinking ‘hey man, I like titling my work it gives me the opportunity to explain the work a little bit, to steer the conversation.’ This is a crutch for the artist and for the viewer. If your work has stimulating content then it doesn’t need help and if you need to add content to your work with a title maybe you should revisit the art until it can stand alone.
If you disagree, good, start a conversation and let me know why I’m wrong in the comments.
Robert Michael Jones