Should Artists Have to Talk About Their Work?

Several years ago, a well-known international artist gave a talk at at a major Dallas museum about his work. It was in a big auditorium and well-attended, and it seemed that the people in the first four or five rows were there to be dazzled. Others of us in the audience, especially some artists in the group, were a harder sell—not entirely convinced about his work—but there to hear his side of it.

The artist had the swagger and projection of an entrepreneur at a venture capital pitch meeting. His machine-gun paced, Wikipedia-fied version of art history and how it related to his work was rehearsed and charming. (Clearly I am not writing about Matthew Barney, pictured above.) The museum members in the front rows beamed up at him; artists can sell themselves to those who want to believe. But a few of us elsewhere in the room listened to him with increasing fatigue.

By saying everything under the sun, he wasn’t saying anything with any real traction about his work or where it came from, which made us suspect that his entire career was a bit of a gimmick. It was increasingly clear to some of us that he made work that looked cool—i.e. design—then in hindsight came up with a pitch to make people believe there was something profound in it. Toward the end of his talk, it was all we could do to not cough-yell “bullshit!” under our breath, Top Gun-style. (We did not). But really, I would bet that 97% of the audience bought it.

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