Thursday, December 3, 2009

My Intentions Were Pure

If I may digress from the state of my body for a moment, I’d like to contemplate the abomination that has been foisted on the art world under the innocent phrase, “The Artist’s Statement.”

It all started when Renaissance art lovers were baffled by the Mona Lisa and couldn’t figure out what exactly it was a picture of.

“It’s obviously a smiling woman, ” said one viewer.

“Not much of a smile. Looks like she bit off something she wants to spit out, but is too polite to do so,” said his friend.

“I like her smile,” said the first. “I think she’s preggers.”

“Why did he even bother painting a woman in the first place?” the second one asked. “Not his usual interest.” They exchanged knowing glances.

So Leonardo, overhearing this, sat down to explain to them what they were looking at.

“My intention,” he wrote, “was to capture the ineffable, indescribable, haunting, yet strangely seductive, soul of womankind, by which I mean all of Mother Nature and, indeed, the Great Maternal Cosmos itself, and thus to translate the deep spiritual yearning that lurks within all of us into a tangible, subtly erotic, provocative, yet ultimately unknowable human image suitable for postcards and parodies for centuries to come.” **

The viewers were impressed, Leonardo’s prices soared, and the rest is history. Art history, admittedly, but history nonetheless.

Thus were we cursed. Artists way, way, way down the food chain from the likes of Leonardo have been struggling ever since to explain what the hell they think they’re doing.

I submitted a painting to a gallery once, with the Artist’s Statement, “My intension was to make a little money with this sucker.”

It was not accepted.

The problem is, if artists were capable of expressing something in prose, they’d be writing prose in the first place, wouldn’t they, instead of getting their jeans all smeary?

Composers don’t have this problem, I think because music lovers are so intellectual, none of them would dare admit they don’t get it. Folks who flock to art galleries, on the other hand, looking for a little cheap wine and something that matches their couch, have no such inhibitions.

But mostly, gallery-goers don’t give a damn about the Artist’s Statement, either. It’s all for the benefit of art reviewers, art writers, curators, and other MFA types. It gives them a springboard for their own ineffable flights of impenetrable prose.

So we poor paint-stained schlubs are stuck with our thesauruses, trying to sound a lot smarter than we are, because the people who put stuff in galleries not only want us to paint something, they also want us to explain what we were trying to paint, and gloss over the fact that it didn’t come out quite like we hoped it would. Presumably, throwing a lot of big words at a painting convinces gallery owners that a) what they’re hanging on their wall really was what you had planned to paint all along, and b) it’s Important As All Get Out.

Of course it is.

Just as writers start out with a perfectly nice white sheet of paper, or an unsullied word processing screen, and then mess it up with words, artists start out with a perfect piece of art. A white canvas. Who could improve on that? (Well, Leonardo and Picasso and a few others, but I’m talking about the real world.)

So, you get a brush and some paint, and you spoil it. Whatever you do, it’s clearly wrong, so you do something to correct it, and now you’ve got two things that are clearly wrong. And so on. You keep correcting and correcting until you get the thing looking OK, and then you pretend that everything was thought out in advance and meant to happen exactly the way it happened.

Then you sit down with your thesaurus and write a bunch of bullshit. With any luck, the painting will match someone’s couch, and everybody’s happy because The System Works.

Then you go back to the studio and spoil another perfect canvas.

At least, that’s how I do it. Other people may really be trying to crystallize basic plastic organic reality (actual artist’s statement). Who knows?

Sigh. Life is short, art is long-winded.

** Leonardo’s actual Artist’s Statement has been lost, but knowing how these things work, that’s probably close. It would have sounded better in Italian.