What Artists Talk About When They Talk About Their Art

And why it’s hard to say anything truly meaningful

Christopher P Jones


Christopher P Jones is the author of How to Read Paintings, an examination of art’s most enthralling images and their meanings.

Photo by Yannis Papanastasopoulos on Unsplash

When I was at art college — many years ago now — I learnt two things very quickly.

The first was that, if you’re going to make it as a practicing artist, you must not only be passionate, but also sociable, canny, eclectic, pompous (but not too much), fierce, shrewd, barefaced and, hopefully as daring as possible.

In short, I began to realise that a contemporary artist is measured by his or her mettle, as much as anything else.

Well, that had me a little stumped…

The other thing I learnt was that, to prove yourself in all-of-the-above, you had to learn to speak for yourself. Your artwork alone was not quite enough; you had to argue for it, stand up for it and extol it. Art school was about learning to take responsibility for your work, and fending off attacks if required.

Now, this had me really stumped…

Talking about my art was never an easy thing to do. It still isn’t. The very point of creating art was to go to places where words couldn’t venture.

And yet, I understood that the need to talk and write about my work was (probably) a professional necessity: in pitches to potential buyers, press releases, discussions over social media, artist talks and workshops.

Talking about one's art must do more than merely describe it; it must compliment the work, echo the themes, subtitle it, and most of all, reveal the artist behind it. In preparing such a thing, the artist is faced with a myriad of awkward questions: How is my art meant to operate? What is its purpose? What is my relation to it? How can language capture these facets?

I’ve never liked the question “What does your work mean?”

When I talk about my artwork, I tend to find myself fumbling with empty statements, like the following:

“My paintings express my inner feelings.”

“I‘m trying to say something about the human condition.”

“The world is so complex and perplexing. That’s what the painting is trying to say!!”

These sort of statements offer little in the way of meaningful instruction on what my work is trying to achieve. Instead, they represent the misty landscape of artistic ‘explanation’ into which, I think, many of us stumble.

The reason for this, I believe, is that we have inherited an expressionistic version of creativity, one which corners us into a use of vague and muddled language.

Expressionism is about an artist expressing their inner self. It is the key paradigm of how we understand art to function. An artist looks into their own consciousness (or soul) and shows us the contents through the signs and symbols of their work. It is a mystical process, transferring ideas from the inner world to the outer.

Expressionism leaves us with a problem: if the making of art is mystical, then what are artists meant to say when they are asked to describe it?

Artists have always struggled with this question. The painter Paul Klee, for example, who wrote several detailed books about the creative process, likened the inner life of the artist to the trunk and roots of a tree, and the outward expression to the tree’s crown. And yet, despite this elegant metaphor, he always found that in the actual moment of creativity all forethought had to be put to one side.

It is not surprising that visual artists writing about their work must often be tempted by adage (sometimes attributed to Picasso):

“Painter, don’t talk. Paint!”

It has not always been this way. The ascription of an artwork to an individual artist has historical foundations. The medieval artist or artisan was rarely cited by name; therefore to hope to find a written testament or personal ‘statement of intent’ from a medieval artist is a hope in vain.

It was only in the fourteenth century that mention and praise of individual artists occurred. This helped generate interest in specific artists’ works, leading to forms of marketing and the building of reputations, and in this way, to the artist as an esteemed commodity. The connection of painting with the liberal arts brought with it assumptions of innate talent and inventiveness, captured in the Italian term ingegno. The term has etymological connections with the term ‘genius’, though the meaning has altered through time, resulting with the post-romantic conception of genius that is bound up closely with self-expression.

Consider the following statements, by two of America’s most celebrated artists. The first indicates the magical aspect of creativity; the second shows how circumstantial factors are invoked to act as a statement of intent:

“The most important tool the artist fashions through constant practice is faith in his ability to produce miracles when they are needed.” (Mark Rothko)

“On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.” (Jackson Pollock)

Even though they are quite different, both of these statements encourage us to look directly at the artist whilst at the same time invoking something mystical as the key to creativity.

Poststructuralist formulations of the subject’s place in society present a fundamentally different relationship between artist and artwork. In this formulation the subject is ‘decentred’ according to which the subject does not speak or create from an authoritatively subjective point of view. In this formula, expressionism as we know it is debunked. Rather, the subjective experience is said to be granted by social and symbolic systems, expressed through language whose meaning is not guaranteed by the speaker but by the public structure of which it is part.

As T. R. Quigley describes the postmodern position, since the “play of signs is the property of culture rather than of the individual writer [or artist], it follows that the notion of art as self-expression is a myth — a vestige of ideology.”

What does this all mean? Take this example of the painter Wassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky was a member of the emerging modern-expressionistic movement of early twentieth century Europe. He was a student of colour-theory, abstraction, orientalism, and was an experimentalist throughout his career. His theories on colour make for fascinating reading, and when one enters a gallery filled with Kandinsky paintings one is left in no doubt that colour is the subject under investigation. The artist worked under a set of theoretical conditions that regarded colour as a force capable of manipulating the viewer’s soul. His works are a collection of experiments in such manipulation, a collection we are invited to pause over and judge. The outcomes of these experiments are not foreseen, but they are performed with purpose, in Kandinsky’s own words to “exercise influence on the spiritual atmosphere.”

In the historical perspective such movements as Expressionism are treated in terms of their sociological makeup, and the individuals viewed through a paradigm similar to anthropology. From this point of view, a Kandinsky painting does not reveal a transcendental truth which we can now experience so much as a remnant of a certain idea, or else a meeting place of different social and cultural forces consolidated into a single object. A painting is a historical deposit of a cultural milieu: an artifact of a time and place.

The idea here is that the status we accord to artworks is not the result of some quality inherent in the objects themselves, but is conferred on them by their functions within a particular set of social and cultural patterns.

This perspective may leave some people cold, but it could help us understand why talking about our art is so fraught with difficulties. On the other hand, to think of our work as a remnant of a historical moment that yields meaning through historically specific categories of experience may well make the task a little easier.

We might not agree with this view of art, but what it raises is an interesting question: Is there a better way of writing about our art?

If you liked this, you may also be interested in my book How to Read Paintings, an examination of fifteen of art’s most enthralling images.

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