The circular discussion/argument regarding content versus context is an important one from the perspective of the artist and the public. For me the key to the appreciation of an artist’s work is understanding the context in which the piece was created. This view runs counter to that of many, notably the conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner, a self-described “materialist” and “cultural dialectician” who uses language both as a material and as a means of presenting his ideas. Two examples of his work are reproduced below.
In an interview for ArtForum (New York) in May 1982 he stated: “Why I choose language, why you choose to paint on canvas: that’s a real personal choice. This is what I have been saying for fifteen years: such a personal choice doesn’t mean anything in the context of art. It’s not the context that counts, it’s the content. This is why Duchamp isn’t an interesting artist. Context doesn’t connote art: context connotes how art is used at a certain time only”.
This is all well and good from the artist’s point of view but I feel that a first time-viewer of Weiner’s work would be hard pressed to form an opinion without being aware of his thinking (the context).
When I first encountered the work of Jeff Wall at the Aurora Borealis exhibition in Montreal (1985) I was attracted by the brightly lit light boxes and the outdoor advertising style of the works. It was much later that I learned that the photographs were staged and, in the case of “Mimic”, recreated a scene of racial abuse that Wall had witnessed (see image below).
Most people are not interested enough nor do they have the time for research into an artist’s background and interests but I do feel that most public galleries and writers about contemporary art could do more to set a context for an artist’s work.
We do not all want to be art scholars but many of us would like some assistance in situating what we are about to see. There is a fine line between the exhibition two-step (two steps forward to squint at the fine print next to a piece and two steps back to consider) and an assembly-line progression through an exhibition with little or no contextual information. I admit that there is also the challenge of not wanting to be spoon-fed or to be told what I am supposed to get from a work.
The ideal situation for me is to have read the exhibition catalogue before venturing into the gallery. I know – most people consider this a bit extreme. But again, without a context it is difficult for me to form an opinion on the content.
The exhibition curator, the art historian and writers play a critical role in supporting the general public’s access to an appreciation of contemporary art. Sometimes these individuals are part of the barrier erected between the artist and the public. My criticism is that some writers on the subject of contemporary art spend too much time impressing themselves and attempting to impress their colleagues with overdone theoretical pronouncements and references. Access to clear, concise and relevant information would go a long way to reducing a person’s anxiety about learning to appreciate art.
The real challenge, even when you can find an accessible writer, is whether there is a broad enough market for well presented and well explained books and articles about art. In an article, “The Art Books Last Stand?” (Art in America, September 2006), Christopher Lyon points out that on the part of certain museums “…there are now two audiences for modern art, ‘downstairs’ and ‘upstairs’: the audience of the street, general-interest consumers who do not know or care enough to engage seriously with art; and the far smaller audience of ‘culture workers’ and ‘aficionados’.”
Lyon wonders why the art book market is so soft given that the potential audience seems to have grown over the past 20 years if the press articles about the resurgence of prices for modern art is any indication.
I like the way Jed Perl (Eyewitness, 2000), outlines in his essay “The Art of Seeing”, the other side of the coin, the responsibility of the artist in drawing in the public: “To the extent that contemporary artists can make people look longer and harder, they must dare to give their work a complicated openness, a surprising particularity. Artists have to find a way to pull audiences in, for only when people come to understand that within a painting or a sculpture they can find a time that is outside of time will they want to keep looking.”