Monday, July 11, 2011

Performance Art... Parody Vs Reality?

By John Jude Palencar

For the sake of this post, I’m referring to two dimensional work. How many times without seeing their work have you heard an artist explain their art in an evasive pretentious manner? In some cases the artist will respond with.... ”it’s hard to explain my approach”. What they really mean is... “I’m just so unique that no one understands my genius”. In reality, when finally viewing their work it simply turns out to be low quality crap, borrows heavy from one school of painting or a combination of approaches. This attitude is adopted by both abstract and realist painters. Rather than attributing any influence, their ego prevents them from giving credit to other artists or schools of thought. Remember ... ”it’s all about me and I’m special! This narcissistic arrogance is often accompanied by long winded statements to support otherwise low quality work. Maybe it’s insecurity more often it usually is ego. Some artists feel if they talk up their art it will give the viewer, gallery or potential collector a special window into their creative souls. This is not to say that being a good verbal communicator is not beneficial, rather that “art speak” can be overly used as a crutch to bolster, or uplift bad art. In their inflated minds they are flawless and deserve the admiration of others for their self proclaimed, unique artistic efforts.

What really matters is quality. Quality in concept, execution, and presentation. Words are just words and in most cases will have no bearing on how someone will ultimately react to your art. These “art speak” posers often fail and will be flipping burgers or waiting tables in some dingy restaurant in a few years . Or... they will go into teaching to perpetuate the life cycle of “art speak” practitioners. Their frustration is sometimes palpable... so stay away from them... very far away.

Originality is a very rare thing. Today’s artists are working in dialects instead of inventing completely new visual languages. These hybrid styles (dialects) will become the next generation of art for our time. Your art for the most part should speak for itself and at least affect the viewer in an intimate memorable fashion. The viewer may not get what your striving for but they should respond on a qualitative personal level.

The vid below is a piece of Performance Art. The performance is making fun of itself. The subtitles are priceless. I’ve personally heard this ”art speak” from low quality artists for years. I hesitate calling this vid performance art... it’s more like a comedy bit, but oh so true.

“An Artist’s Statement”


  1. Priceless! I hope she does get excellent work soon. Every time I see one of the self important blathering "artists" with some combination of dysfunctional, ugly and offensive "art" I think of the story of the Emperor's New Clothes.

    Visual art is not verbal, if it were the artist would be a writer, but there is no reason they cannot be articulate.

  2. I just have to add James Gurney's artist statement generator to the mix. Classic.

  3. Best wise post ever. Thanks for sharing!

  4. The comments on Gurney's earlier post on this same video are insightful: "We artists tend to paper over the lameness of our work with inflated nonsense."

    I've seen apologetic nonsense like this in guides to modern art museums and been frustrated that, even as obviously self-serving and defensive as these statements are, the artist's works still got chosen and hung, they were very well paid for it, and many thousands paid good money to see it.

    Warhol (or his agents) and others like him would come up with this nonsense just to feed the frenzy press, laughing all the way to the bank. They knew how shallow their works were, but they were excellent salesmen. And they became world famous and millionaires as a result.

  5. Hahaha, I´ve met soo many people like that in my country (4 out of 10 if not more), the worst part is that they don´t even have the anatomy/shading skills to believe that, in fact, I´ve met people that were drawing for 10 years and they draw worse than when they started, but they still believe they´re the big deal.
    One of those people (that lacks any skill in anatomy) even got to try to teach someone how to make a good skeleton basis (we´re talking about a person that can´t make two arms the same size).
    I really don´t get how that kind of people here gets a lot of attention when there are others, that don´t speak for their art but let their art speak for them (and they´re great) that get no attention.
    I, as a shy person and beginner artist, tend to let my art speak for me, and answer the questions that show up ^^. If my art is good, it will interest people no matter which words I use to talk about it. This beign said, I do not under appreciate my work, I know what it´s worth.

    If you have time to check them, I´d like you to see two of the best artists here in my little country (Uruguay):

    Jorge Mato ilustración
    Archipielago 1045

  6. This is a funny video and a great poke at less talented artists. Like anyone else, I've found myself frustrated by artists who are arrogant an obtuse. What frustrates me even more is that all too often, a blog like this, one that I visit often, promote in the classes I teach, and like quite a bit, will just take an all out swipe at "the other side" of art without giving the slightest nod to all the excellent abstract, performance, video and mixed media art there is. This isnt the 1960's - there isnt a war going on between representational and abstract and performance. Its true that there is some cart before the horsing going in in Art Schools, but I dont see a reason to denigrate other genres of art to elevate your own. For sure, for every obnoxious and presumptuous performance artist i meet, I meet one tired and skill-less hack that is biting the style of past representational artists without a thought to the concepts and substance that made that artist relevant during their time and are as inarticulate as they are vapid. Its true that this kind of "art speak" can be frustrating when immature students are first trying it out, but the process of learning to be articulate and mature doesnt skip the awkward teen years, and I prefer an art world that promotes verbal and visual communication equally. Thoughtless hacks are thoughtless hacks on either side of the aisle. I use that phrase because it reminds me of politics - where this kind of trumped up partisanship makes me cringe on a daily basis.

    I am not saying this video isnt funny. Or good. Its both. Cracked me up - I would have loved to see it on youtube. Im not saying the criticism isnt fair. It is. I am not saying that you should take the video down. What I am saying is that people look up to you muddy colourists. What I am saying is that blindly marrying this kind of verbalization to performance art - grouping them as if they were inseparable and this kind of mumbo jumbo is inherrant. The claim is as unwarranted as it is unnecessary. And as irresponsible as it is uninformed.

    I know you prefaced your spiel by saying it is just about 2-D art. I think in the end, I might dissagree and say that the thrust of your opinion got away from you. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but I see this kind of mocking going on all the time. Its one thing if it is on facebook, but its another thing to post it here - knowing all the influence you have on your readers - along with this diatribe, where a more thoughtfull message could have been sent.


  7. As much as artwork SHOULD stand on it's own merits and creativity, people fall for the artist's ability to hype up their low quality work. Banksy's movie "Exit Through the Gift Shop" follows a guy who builds a reputation from nothing and it's ridiculous how well he does just based on what people are "saying"

  8. Well stated sir, and a GREAT vid to boot.

  9. I would have to differ with Jesse. In my opinion (and we are all entitled to an opinion) The war between representational and abstract art rages on. In the institution where I teach and in many of the hallowed halls of learning where my friends teach, representational art or in my case "illustration" gets assaulted from every turn. Sometimes it is quiet and behind the scenes and other times very blatant and in your face. At the same time noses get looked down and those who don't "get" the meaningless, derivative, non representational garbage that attempts to pass itself off as art are chided as obviously not intelligent enough to understand the nuances of what is being shown. Then they top it off with pages of rambling written diatribe to to the point of ceasing to be visual communicators and arriving at the point of being (gasp) a writer. At which point why bother with the visual aids- just write a book. I don't get it at all, since I have never made a distinction between "fine art" and "illustration". Either it is good or it is not, either it communicates with the viewer or it does not, either it is finely crafted or it is not. Good art should stand on it's own merits and those merits should be obvious. If it takes a novel to enumerate it's value, is it really art?

  10. Can't believe I'm doing this. I loved this video when I first saw it. I am a humor junky. But I also am of the belief that the baby should not be thrown out with the bath water. I am a prof guy too and nowhere is this attitude more prevalent than in the hallowed halls. It's a desperate attempt by poorly trained artists to hold onto the only things they know. Protection of tenure allows for limited growth in most cases.

    The thing is there are honest artists out there who are pioneers, have paved the way and continue to pave they way for the arts. With time and intelligence we can hopefully continue to distinguish between those who can crap and the innovators. Even some of the innovators of the illustration world had to do a little fast talking in the beginning to get the mainstream to accept what we now take for granted.

    Maybe it's because I have had this discussion on other forums and in other places but artists with Jon's experience and sensitivity can make subtle distinctions which allow him to make the statements he does. What I worry about are the young artists who read this and narrow their vision of art rather than expanding it.

  11. I'm going to back up Bill and Jesse.

    I have seen a TON of idiot artists who use words to hide their shortcomings. However, there are equally as many performance artists and abstract minimalists that do deserve great respect.
    Personally, I hold artists like Rauschenberg and Motherwell among some of the greatest.

    Yes, you need to wade through a lot of crap to find the gems, but that's no need to be bitter about the whole genre.

    I think a good rule of thumb is this:
    If a piece of art needs to rely on an explanation (or even a title) in order for it to succeed, then it already failed.

  12. Greg, I appreciate the response. I have heard this sentiment before, and I would never be so bold as to contradict your experience. I will say though, that in my experience with art schools, to which I have been to many, I have never really sensed any resentment toward representation at all. I am a representational artist, and have had my work called "illustrative" before, but never with hostility. I have my BFA from The College of New Jersey - no trouble there being a representational artist. The School of Visual Arts for my foundation year - a strong current of representational artists across all the disciplines. RISD for my graduate degree - Here representational work is backed up by a fabulous foundation year that focuses on developing skills alongside a conceptual vocabulary. These are some of the top art schools in the country and especially RISD enjoys the not so well earned reputation of being overly conceptual. But I would challenge anyone to come down and experience RISD from foundation year to the grad college and try to claim they reject representational art or dismiss it as illustration. Its true that they are heavy on concept, and that produces some tiresome conversations, but it takes some drugging to get students to develop a vocabulary that is concise and effective.

    I have, however, felt quite acutely, the bias of more than a few representational artists who, without knowing my full portfolio of work, assume that my allegiance is to representational art only and go on to criticize entire genres and schools they have no experience with. When they find out I have a more moderate view the backpedaling and apologies begin. A quote from a very talented teacher and artist at an atelier I attended "Any artist with a masters degree probably isnt a very good one or they would already have begun working already"....and went on after making eye contact with me "present company excluded of course" -Brilliant.

    The only place I have sensed a resentment is from representational artists that feel like their efforts go unrecognized and make the claim that other less hard working "performance" sorts get off easy and are making suckers out of us all. Even your own comment totally rips abstract and performance art, never pausing to say that the good artists among them are hard working, conscientious , and thoughtful - just like representational artists.

    Its true that a large part of the art word is exploring new forms of art and ideas, and that doesn't leave room for endless amounts of representational art. But my walks in chelsea, soho, san fransisco, Boston, or any museum that isnt strictly modern never leaves me wanting for representational art...

    Like Bill, I have had this conversation many times and I often find it coming from young artists that are repeating what older, wiser artists that lived through those transitional years are saying. But with none of the nuance and insight. It is my worry, and my experience that this kind of post can work toward narrowing a young artists view rather than broadening understanding.

  13. There is much food for thought in your words, Jesse.
    Indeed, there is more than one road that lead to Rome.
    In addition to that, it has been said that there are three truths in life: My Truth, Your Truth and The Truth. The problem is, as it often appears, that we tend to present My Truth as being The Truth, in spite of the fact that we no nothing, or very little, about the nature of the other truths. Personally, I can align myself with this idea of the three truths, but at the same time I find the problem of “wanting my truth to be the ultimate truth” very complex and not easy to deal with. Being an inexact and hard to measure thing, Art is a perfect ground for expressing such attitudes. If you are not with us , you are against us. Once, a famous painter said that the only thing that the numerous art movements, the isms, from the beginning of the 20th century had in common, is the denial of each other. One does not have to be an art expert to see how absurd this situation can be.

    On the other hand, there is something very important going on as far as this verbal clash of the conflicting ideas and opinions about art, or any other subject matter, is concerned. Because there is nobody out there who knows the right answer to all the questions, this conflict of different points of view is giving us the opportunity to have a constructive and useful dialog (which we are having at the moment) and therefore perhaps to come closer to The Truth, whatever that might be. At the same time it helps/forces us to realize how limited our own thinking is.

    So, what I want to say is; as long as we keep on discussing our differences in a manner of a gentleman, and not hurting each other, directly or indirectly, everything is cool and well. No need to be disappointed either. Muddies or non-Muddies, we all are simple mortals, no angels or wise old men from the fantasy novels, and therefore have the privilege of making mistakes. We have our preferences and beliefs, and have the inherited urge to stick to them. As long as we are open and flexible and respectful towards each other, we all can profit from this dialog. After all, Art is a treacherous and muddy ground, and not that easy to comprehend, and many have failed to come out of it without getting dirty, in one or another way.

    Anyway, as far as I am concerned, this kind of well-articulated, benign criticism, as yours appears to be, Jesse, is a precious thing. The same could be said about Palencar’s opinion, although perhaps somewhat less nuanced, but still honest and not without sense. This make the dialog goes on, and that is a good thing.

  14. Great post John, you put in words what I always think when wandering through a modern-art-fair;-)

    Nice one Jason, but even better: "the arty Bollocks generator", I use it for some artsy-fartsy sites occasionally:

    Dan, your statement: "If a piece of art needs to rely on an explanation (or even a title) in order for it to succeed, then it already failed." is not absolutely correct, I refer to works from Dalí where the title was often explanatory and helped to create even more surrealism, but the works could easily stand successfully for themselves. There are even more great examples where a title just serves as a suggestion and if used right, the artwork itself complements or works along the title in an intelligent manner.

  15. Well said Petar, Thanks for chiming in. I think that can be the last wise and well mannered word on the matter. Thanks all for a lively and spirited discussion!

  16. Jesse, Bill, Petar, great points all. As I look at what I wrote, it seems I may have entered in the back door while you came in the front, but my intention was to point out that like it or not, there is argument from both sides about the validity of each side's artistic approach. The point I thought I made was that there needn't be conflict (which you all gracefully point out). I for one quite enjoy well crafted and well thought out non representational work. The problems truly lie when artists on either side of the aisle try to pass off substandard work as brilliant or innovative when it really is neither. Having had these sorts of circular discussions that go nowhere for want of one side or the other being willing to concede any ground to the other, I find it a frustrating conversation. The bottom line as I stated is that it's either good art or it is not, regardless of the genre. Thanks for making this an interesting topic of discussion.

  17. Thanks for the spirited comments.

    This is good. It’s nice to see an ongoing dialogue on this well trodden subject/ issue. I’m glad that some of you found the post funny and that some found it disturbing. It’s amazing to see how words can shade an issue about the visual arts. Am I using “art speak”?

    As the art critic Robert Hughes has said “Today we live in a world of weightless images”.

  18. Don't get me wrong, the video was hilarious, mostly because of the underlying truth (for me anyway). But it just serves to illuminate the problem with how art is perceived as well as marketed to the sometimes unsuspecting masses.

  19. I've been an artist all my life and have never been able to speak art-speak.


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