David Hockney once said, “It is very good advice to believe only what an artist does, rather than what he says about his work.”
A similar sentiment was conveyed by my graduate school mentor, Marvin Harden, who asked that we not speak about our own work during critiques. Instead, our classmates and, of course, Professor Harden himself, would give us their thoughts on what we were showing.
Obviously, one’s initial impulse is to argue, to explain, to defend. But, as Professor Harden always reminded us, if we are fortunate enough that our work is someday shown in a place of prominence, we won’t be present to explain it to every viewer.
Some will argue that it’s important to know what the artist was thinking, but do we ask ourselves what the chef was thinking before he prepared our meal? Do we ask what the composer was thinking? No, we eat, we listen, we judge.
The idea that artists’ words are more important, or as important, as their work is a recent phenomenon, and in many ways parallels the movement from work that is easily assessable by the average person to work that is more abstract, both in form and meaning.
As art moves from the realm of accessibility to obscurity, the tendency is to blame the masses. “They just don’t get it,” is a common refrain. But, if they don’t get it, explanations won’t necessarily help.
For commercial artists, i.e., designers, this is not a new concept. We don’t defend our work: we present it, and await feedback. We hope people see in it what we want them to see, and if they don’t, then we ask ourselves where we went wrong. We don’t assume that our explanations will suffice. They won’t.
Artists might take a cue from designers: being clever is all well and good, but when clever gets in the way of meaning, you’re no longer an artist, you’re a performer, and your work is a prop. Stop relying on explanations and make sure your work speaks for itself.