I was attracted to art that was as transformative as possible; indeed, I thought this was what art was. You took life and turned it, by some charismatic, secret process, into something else: related to life, but stronger, more intense and, preferably, weirder.
Julian Barnes, Keeping an Eye Open
I was thinking about Nathan Englander’s title, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, a book that alludes to a Raymond Carver story called, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. That led me to a short essay by the critic Roberta Smith called, What We Talk About When We Talk About Art. In Smith’s version of the titular phrase, she addresses the “creeping usage” of particular descriptive words attached to art-making whose usage, “converts art into a hygienic desk job and signals a basic discomfort with the physical mess as well as the unknowable, irrational side of art making.”
While thinking about this circular appropriation and the recycling (upcycling?) of Carver’s original title, I was reminded of Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, a work of art that may or may not be a work of art. It might be a philosophical problem or a semantic puzzle. It may be an idea about a work of art. It can be a frustrating and inscrutable piece to consider.
In One and Three Chairs, Joseph Kosuth famously represents one chair three ways: as a manufactured chair, as a photograph and as a copy of a dictionary entry for the word “chair.” The resulting installation presents the viewer with an object, an image, and words, in order to ask us to consider how meaning is constructed. In Duchampian style, Kosuth did not make the chair, take the photograph, or compose the words, instead arranging all in a particular (conceptual) way to force a question about art.
What do we talk about when we talk about art? More and more, as I teach, write, make and talk about art, I am inclined to denote the word thusly: art. The italicized version of the word seems an appropriate way to denote difference. Because, what we talk about when we talk about art is not the same, given that the “we” in the sentence is an unknown, as is the “art.” We make considerable assumptions when we talk aboutart. Do we mean Art or art? Which function of art are we speaking of and what are the intentions of each speaker; what is our stake in such a conversation?
Perhaps we should consider one and three ways to write about the subject in general: Art, art, and art.Each iteration of the word, its state of difference, suggests a nuanced understanding of how it is being deployed; what it alludes to and what it aligns with. Each of the three iterations signals its intentions and announces its own identity politics.
The Kosuth piece is clearly directed at an audience that subscribes to an orthodox version of art, one that is inside and (perhaps we could say) enlightened. It is tempting to invoke the transformative reach of the tools of language to create emphasis around the language of art. However, it is the process of art that creates art or Art. How we talk about art and, further, how we write about art transforms our understanding of it and clarifies where it belongs in our own personal index of experience.
Chair, UW-Madison Art Department