As part of my learn-everything-I-can-while-house-bound Shiny Online Workshop Syndrome, last winter I took a workshop designed to draw calligraphers outside of their boxes and touch on the world of text art. What’s the difference in calligraphy and text art, you might ask? I could give you an in depth answer, or I can distill it down to this: Calligraphers of most any ilk are on an eternal quest to make the most compelling, if not beautiful, marks they can that are letter-based or letter-inspired. Text artists are largely unconcerned with how the letters or marks appear; in fact, the more rudimentary the marks, the better. They are primarily concerned with the concept of the message.
In between exquisite, screen shared images, that illustrated writing from around the world and across time, were interspersed contemporary text-based works, most of which were comprised of either blocky computer fonts or broad markers scribbled on paper or bits of cardboard.
I’ll own my bias, and admit that I prefer looking at text oriented work that indicates a striving for skill. Even the most wildly abstract and intentionally illegible works that blur the lines between writing, drawing, and mark making can make my heart sing. Not so much the Cy Twombly stuff. Still, for 3 of the 4 sessions of the workshop, I did my level best to suspend judgement and discover how I might push my own boundaries of what is possible.
Then the fourth session happened, and I got my money’s worth. After decades of attending exhibits and conference talks that lauded conceptual works, countless gallery and museum shows that ask the question, “What is the nature of art?” or “What does it mean to be worn on the body?” I can safely say, I’ve got the answer for all time. It came to me in flash of insight that left no doubt.
The instructor screen shared an image from a gallery wall. On it were affixed bits of torn cardboard with seemingly random messages scrawled in blue marker. Most of the text read like confusing insults or snap judgements. We were provided no context, nothing about the show or the artist (mostly because the instructor didn’t have this information), and we were asked our thoughts about the work. Immediately some of the luminaries of the very international calligraphic world chimed in with observations that the messages seemed random, incomplete, and nonlinear. I added that they all read like snarky comments from stereotypically portrayed, unpleasant matrons on a BBC drama (read Peaky Blinders or East Enders). No one responded or indicated they understood my comment, which I found rather absurd since the workshop was hosted by a UK school, and there’s no escaping that type of character on anything produced by the BBC. I re-muted myself and observed the flying speculations.
Everyone, even the instructor, seemed so desperate to arrive at some kind of meaning about the work. The speculative conversation escalated as people went on, unfortunately lasting far longer than most of the critiques of the participants’ work. In the absence of the artist to confirm or deny our ideas, the instructor said, “We can’t know, but isn’t it great that we ask the questions? Isn’t it good that this kind of work inspires the conversation?” I thought about the countless times I’d been drawn into just such a conversation in person, heated or polite, always with a touch of intellectualism and academia, often with a heaping helping of art-speak. My silent response was, “No, it isn’t great. In fact, it’s really rather boring. Stick a fork in me – I’m done.”
What does conceptual art mean? It means that humans are hard wired to seek meaning and pattern in whatever we encounter. We will search for sense within nonsense in the space where our frontal lobes, craving logic, clash with our reptilian brains, alert for what makes us uneasy. In the absence of context or concrete information from the artist, if we cannot collectively agree on what that sense is, I’ve observed countless times that people invested in conceptualism or not wanting to appear stupid about art will have one of two reactions. The instinctive fear of anything that threatens our worldviews will cause us to ostracize those who dissent, or several thousand years of civilization will prompt us to marginally politely agree to disagree. In contemporary language this plays out as either, “She just doesn’t get it,” or “Isn’t it great we have these conversations?”.
Having repeatedly been told both of those answers at my own dissent, I can safely reply in the words of Groucho Marks: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member”. I’m totally ok on the outside of the in-club. When getting it means lauding the proverbial naked emporer’s new clothes, I refuse to play. As for the conversation being great, I’ve yet to be caught up in one that was. Usually they’re tedious. Not everyone feels heard, throwing out any possible sincerity for the relativists because definitely there are a few privileged points (those of the in-crowd). Most people just keep patting themselves on the back for being fluent enough in art-speak to impress themselves. I’ve yet to witness any profound revelations take place. More like group think of “I’m so privileged to have seen the emporer’s outfit.”
Ask me how quickly the tears came in the Rothko Chapel, how I staggered slightly backwards and nearly fell off an escalator at MoMA as a huge Jackson Pollock painting vibrated into view, or how, after decades of my godmother/art-mom Bobbie talking to me about Kandinsky, I rounded the corner of a gallery in the Pinakothek der Moderne and a great “Ooooohhhh” of comprehension rippled through my being when I encountered his work in person.
Notice all of those are emotional reactions, the kind that hit out of nowhere and forever alter our perceptions. Not everyone has these kinds of reactions about every “great” work of art. That’s not only ok, it’s important because different things resonate with different people. Compelling work does not have to be in one’s own wheelhouse to resonate. We don’t have to politely agree to disagree about our favorite colors or our favorite songs because we intuitively know these knee jerk preferences are personal.
What does conceptual art mean? It means that humans are hard wired to seek meaning and pattern in whatever we encounter. We will search for sense within nonsense in the space where our frontal lobes, craving logic, clash with our reptilian brains, alert for what makes us uneasy.
Rarely (read never) have I witnessed this reaction over confusing text art or rumpled bed sheets on a gallery floor probably because their very concepts arise out of cold logic rather than archetypal emotions and stories. In other words, we can’t relate because we don’t relate, but lots of people will keep talking about the meaning as if it’s an art school exercise, and they want an A.
There is a place in the world for all types of creative works. If people feel motivated to create purely conceptual works, it’s absolutely not up to me or anyone else to sensor their ability to do so. I for one, however, am done with the conversations surrounding it. If the work leaves me cold, and a bit of context doesn’t enlighten me, I can walk away knowing I’ve already solved the riddle.
Archeo – Observing Your Own Integration
Book addict that I am, I love it when I loose track of online pre-ordering, and a long awaited release shows up on my porch. Thus was my joy that Nick Bantock’s newest endeavor, Archeo, magically appeared recently.
Not merely a “which character are you?” test nor another tarot deck nor the creator’s “sense within nonsense” bit of ironic play, Archeo is an artwork set of book and cards, beautifully designed to help everyone explore all the various aspects of themselves.
Many of Archeo’s archetypes are familiar, others highly intuitive, still more are unexpected, yet all of them are as brilliant as we’ve all come to expect from the creator of Griffin & Sabine. (I was deeply honored that Nick also wrote the introduction to my book Giving Voice.)
If you’re looking for a divination tool, check out The Housewives Tarot: a Domestic Divination Kit, my favorite tool for laughing at what may or may not be your future. If, on the other hand, you’d like to better understand your own path, your own hero’s journey, then delve into the exquisite artwork and timeless words of Archeo.
More from Metalwerx
After the success of Metalwerx’s online Fall Symposium, they are launching their first ever Virtual Spring Symposium. April 26-30, 2021. Register by April 25th. A big shout out and thanks from me and my fellow MWX Board of Directors to Rio Grande for their generous sponsorship of the event! I look forward to seeing you “there.”