The Obligation to Explain
One of the striking aspects of the controversy around Kelley Walker’s exhibition at the Saint Louis Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) is how many important issues it raises, including, obviously, the perilous state of race relations in the country; the dilemmas that arise when one person’s freedom of speech is perceived by someone else as hate speech; whether white artists, or writers, musicians, etc. can tackle the subject of black experience without engaging in cultural appropriation; and the extent to which social media may now put pressure on museums and other public institutions to bring more transparency to their curatorial process (many protestors want to know who decided to show Walker’s work and why).
All these topics urgently require discussion, but there is another one, perhaps less linked to social problems, that I would like to examine: Whether artists are under any obligation to explain themselves or their work? This issue is relevant to the St. Louis Debate because it was Walker’s (and the show’s curator Jeffrey Uslip’s) unresponsiveness to public questioning during a September 17th artist’s talk that really galvanized the protests rather than the work itself. In reading accounts of the event and subsequent reactions to it, I have the impression that if Walker had made a cogent argument for his art, if he had been able to openly share his intentions, if he had offered a counterargument to the accusation that his work was racist, there would have been far fewer expressions of anger and outrage, and the CAM would probably not have felt it necessary to erect walls and post trigger warnings around Black Star Press and Schema. (Unfortunately, the video of the artist’s talk has remained unavailable since it was live-streamed, so it’s hard to know exactly what questions were asked or just how Walker and Uslip avoided them.)
I firmly believe that artists are under no obligation to explain themselves or their work. If an artist chooses not to reveal anything about his or her intentions, so be it. The making of art, great or atrocious, is the only thing required of the artist qua artist—everything else is optional. And yet there is a common expectation that artists can and should provide accounts and interpretations of their work to viewers. In fact, there seems to be an unwritten social contract between artist and audience stipulating that its part of the artist’s role to discuss his or her work and to respond helpfully to questions about it.
Of course, not every artist adheres to this contract. Indeed, two of the most influential artists of recent decades—Sigmar Polke and David Hammons—are famous for their elusiveness and the paucity of their public statements. With both of these artists, viewers are on their own, challenged to figure out what the work is about, to makes guesses about the creators’ intentions. As a critic, I actually prefer writing about this kind of artist even though it’s harder – nothing to go on except your own perceptions – and scarier – you might get it totally wrong. At the other extreme are artists who write extensively about their work, who give long interviews, who make themselves available. Think, for instance, of Polke’s erstwhile friend Gerhard Richter whose collected writings and interviews run some 500 pages or the late Mike Kelley, as unconventional and influential as Hammons, whose published writings comprise two large volumes.
Although few artists are as prolific in writing as Richter and Kelley, it is rare to come across any as reticent as Polke and Hammons. Most artists are more than happy to grant interviews, and the vast majority of them write statements that turn up as gallery handouts of exhibition catalogue texts. Just look, for instance, at Social Medium: Artists Writings 2000-2015, a 544-page anthology recently published by Paper Monument. It is, in part, the ubiquity of such discourse that rendered Walker’s reticence unacceptable, though clearly his frustrated questioners were keenly aware of the proximity of the CAM to Ferguson, where the 2014 death of Michael Brown sparked the ongoing Black Lives Matter protest movement.
The prevalence of the self-explaining artist has much to do with how artists are trained. Anyone who has spent time in an MFA program (or read Howard Singerman’s Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University) will be familiar with the emphasis on teaching students how to offer interpretations of their work, whether via verbal presentations or in written form. One factor driving this trend is the pressure on MFA programs within a university setting to match other disciplines and professions in academic rigor. The demand for self-interpretation is also driven by the persistent emphasis on critical theory in MFA seminars, which has been a feature of art education since the 1980s, and, to cite an even longer-term trend, how artists have more and more become their own spokespersons, a task once fulfilled by critics. (As evidence of this one need, look no further than Art21, the popular PBS series on contemporary art that features only the voices of artists, and never critics or scholars.)
Of course, artists have been talking about their work for a long time. What’s different about the current protocols of discourse is the assumption that the artist will be forthcoming, always happy to elucidate and explain. New York artists in the 1950s, for instance, were probably more voluble than today’s artists, but the circumstances, content and tone of their discourse (arguments among themselves at places like The Club, defiant manifestoes in obscure magazines) were very different from the generally polite realm of artist talks, slide lectures, public “conversations,” and extensive interviews. There’s much to celebrate in the shift from the embattled artist of the 1940s and1950s to the university trained media-savvy, user-friendly figure of today. Despite persistent hostility toward contemporary art on the part of many elected officials, the artist is far less of an outsider in 21st century America, and enjoys, even when exploring extremes of experiment and transgression, a degree of social recognition and economic reward that would have been unthinkable to midcentury avant-gardes. As always, privileges are accompanied by responsibilities and obligations, and for the professionalized artist, one of these is the artist’s talk, a de rigueur ritual that I suspect every American artist (apart, perhaps, from Hammons) who is given a museum show is asked and expected to deliver.
Kelley Walker could have declined the invitation to give an artist’s talk, but he didn’t. And while I believe that artists don’t owe us any explanation, I also believe that once an artist agrees to appear in public, as Walker did in St. Louis, he or she is under an obligation to be forthcoming and responsive. You don’t agree to do a Q&A if you’re not willing to provide some substantial “A”s. So, what went wrong? Why did what should have been simply another instance of “This is why I made my art” and “This is what I was trying to say” turn into a storm of “How dare you” and “Those are not acceptable answers”? From the accounts I have read, it seems as if Walker, Uslip and the institution were in some kind of bubble that insulated them from—or simply prevented them from imagining the existence of—dissenting voices. Among the voices that apparently didn’t penetrate this bubble were those of three museum staff members who in an open letter described how they and other employees, especially people of color and women, had expressed “great discomfort and disdain on numerous occasions” about the work prior to the opening.
As I suspect other people did after hearing of the CAM controversy, I looked for writings – by the artist and others – about the works in question. I didn’t find much, although in a September 22 letter of apology, Walker insisted that he had spoken about the works “in depth in prior artist talks and interviews.” One article I came across did stand out, in part because it seems to speak to the very issue that is at play now, Glenn Ligon’s “Kelley Walker’s Negro Problem,” which was published in Parkett in 2010. In it, Ligon notes “the profound silence in the critical writing on Walker’s work (and in the art world more generally) about how race operates.” Approving of Walker’s work, Ligon argues that the silence is troubling “because Walker is quite aware of the intractability of the ’problem’ of his racial identity in relationship to images of black people, and part of the impact of his work is that it calls attention to very difficult and still unsettled questions about the politics of representation” and laments the fact that critical writing on his work tends to sidestep the issue of race “by quickly mentioning race only to move on to yet another discussion of Warhol and appropriation.”
It’s strange that six years after Ligon wrote about the glossing over of race in favor of discussing safe aesthetic topics, artist and curator seemed willing to prolong that “profound silence.” Without hearing more from Walker and Uslip, it’s impossible to know precisely why they didn’t adequately answer the questions being asked of them, but I would like to propose a theory: it was because they were confronted with the emergence of an audience whose voice had never been heard before. Of course, this wasn’t the first time that black activists and artist have criticized how African Americans are depicted in art, but this may have been the first public occasion for such discourse since the anger and empowerment that has arisen in the wake of Ferguson. Walker and Uslip didn’t know how to respond because they were hearing inconceivable things being said, inconceivable from within the privileged, and still deeply segregated, realm of the contemporary art world. The extreme discrepancy between how Walker’s work was perceived within the art world and how it was seen by St. Louis’s African-American art community is not, as some might conclude, the result of philistine ignorance of avant-garde practices—it was the consequence of two incompatible languages confronting each other. And in the unpoliced discursive space that opened up around these incompatible languages, the artist and the institution sponsoring him lost control of the work’s meaning, which is precisely what most statements and texts by artists seek to avoid.
Thoughtful artists know that it’s ultimately impossible to control how art is received and interpreted (although that doesn’t mean that they are wrong to try to have the work understood in the way they intend). As literary studies long ago proved, the intentions behind a work of art are in no way determinant of its meaning, and in any case they are nearly impossible to establish. What this means for the St. Louis situation is that Walker’s statements, past or future, about Black Star Press and Schema can never erase the perception that his works are complicit with racism. Ultimately, as history, and the field of Reception Theory, teach us, it will be the audience who decides on the meaning of the work, not the artist. Should we take into account whatever an artist has said about his or her work? Of course we should. Do artists sometimes achieve things in their work that were nowhere in their intentions? Yes, thankfully, for otherwise art would be merely a technical exercise. If the controversy in St. Louis tells us anything, it is that meaning is always up for grabs, a fact too often forgotten in the face of contemporary art’s smoothly running interpretative apparatus (of which I, too, am a part).
Another lesson is to beware of every kind of bubble: media bubbles filled with like-minded partisans, class bubbles filled with socio-economic equals, linguistic bubbles filled with single-language speakers, and culture bubbles devoid of those who might look at things from an entirely different perspective. All of us—not least a white, male New York art critic—are ensconced within our respective spherical domains. I doubt that I would be any better prepared than Kelley Walker to respond to one of them being burst by an unanticipated question. I only hope that the next time something like that happens I will be ready to listen. And yet I also hope that explanations will never become compulsory, especially for artists who prefer to stay inside the best bubble of them all, the studio bubble.
Kelley Walker: Schema and Kelley Walker: Direct Drive remain on view at CAM through December 31, 2016. 3750 Washington Blvd, St. Louis, MO 63108, camstl.org