With this recently re-booted Blog I’ve been taking the risk of writing whatever comes to mind each week, without presuming to have anything interesting or valuable to say, and without any particular subject or theme in mind to write ‘about’.
This reminds me that one of my first large scale lectures as an art lecturer was titled ‘About About’. I came up with that title because, at that time (it doesn’t happen so much these days) soo many students were concerned with what their work was ‘about’.
As I say, this problem, or at least this particular articulation of this problem, no longer seems to occur. Perhaps that lecture I gave was as influential and world-changing as I hoped it would (as we secretly hope all our lectures and publications will be). But maybe I was not the only artist and lecturer who recognised the ‘about’ epidemic was diverting or restricting a new generation of artists from progressing.
I must admit that I am more of a writer and lecturer than I am a researcher. I tend to explore an idea through my writing and thinking, and draw research in as and when I can, or have to, but I don’t work particularly hard for it, even though I do acknowledge, and have experienced the benefits of well-researched writing.
Perhaps, for this reason, I never took the time or trouble to research just when it was that artists and art students started using the word ‘about’ to explain their works and practices and trajectories. Just as we now might be occupying the afterlife of ‘about-ness’, so there must have been a time that pre-dated its use by artists as a key term.
There is a famous interview with Andy Warhol in which a journalist is basically asking what his work is ‘about’ (what its values and procedures amount to). Warhol answers by asking if he can answer by saying ‘blatherblatherblather’ (he makes a noise like this with his mouth without waiting for the consent of the journalist.) And in another famous interview Warhol responds to every question asked ‘about’ his art by saying either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and answering without time for reflection or consideration.
What this example seems to show is that in the 1960s artists had already become sensitised to this kind of encounter and that they were primed to respond to the media-age by talking ‘about’ their art in ways that they knew were bound to be both inadequate and inaccurate. After all, art itself is not news, not journalism, not a news story, not a vox-pop or a provocative interview. Interestingly, Warhol went on to parody all of this in his own magazine, titled ‘Interview’.
The artist is also of course aware that even if they had resolved at what point their work is ‘about’, that interpretation is only a temporary life raft, a piece of flotsam to hold on to until the meaning, value, process etc. all seems to slip, slide and shift into another form. Furthermore, over time, across space, and under different, other and new eyes, any established interpretation of a practice is bound to change, way beyond the artist’s own control.
Every art, every practice, every life, like every civilisation, culture, or people, ultimately ends up as a more or less inadequate archive, a set of fragments and ruins which misrepresent the past but are nonetheless valuable to those who regard them. Once an artist understands this, we set ourselves free of many delusory restrictions and ambitions, including the ambition to understand and be understood, art always exceeds this aim.
There, I am finished for this week.
Now, what did I write about?