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Process, process

A recent visit to the Center for Maine Contemporary Art left brought up an issue that needs some attention. The Center seems to like to mount shows with lots of artists.
This particular one involves eighty or so, sometimes with many works by each artist.

Population problems aside, the problem here is conceptual,. The idea was to have artists provide preparatory sketches or other materials that they use to make their work. The underlying assumption is that we understand more about the artist by looking at their sketches.

This is, in terms of the direct experience of a work of art, empty calories. It’s true that for a major historical figure their studies might shed some light on their process, but knowing about their process says nothing about the nature and value of their work. We study them because history has proven their worth, not to understand that value any better.

There’s only one rule of art making ( I paraphrase from AJ Liebleing): The way to make art is well, and how you do it is your own business. Knowing anything about how an artist goes about their work is meaningless, in virtually every case. It’s just a way of avoiding thinking about the work in some concrete or meaningful way.

I know an artist whose process is intentionally hidden. You can’t tell whether the pieces are built, cast, made of metal or wood or something else. And yet a respected reviewer spent 500 words or so in a national magazine telling the world how the artist does it, and avoided completely issues of emotional resonance, artistic depth or quality.  He did the artist, the work and the  readership a disservice.

It gains us nothing to know a landscape artist works, say, from an airplane, or that another artists hikes six hours into a mosquito-laden swamp to get a particular scene. What we need to know is, is it any good, and why? As a reviewer, my commentary needs to elucidate what is going on in the piece, not what went on in the studio or out in the puckerbrush. That’s the artists’ business, not the viewers.

Learning about the process is like finding out if it is oil or acrylic. It’s not information that says anything about the work, and is empty conversation. There were some terrific drawings at CMCA, and some not so great, as might be expected with such a large number of works. It was hard to sort through them but sort of fun to see them, usually. I did see some sketches by artists whose work I know well, but I didn’t learn anything about those artists that I needed to know to appreciate them.

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