Thursday, July 21, 2011

Discussion: Skill vs. concept // “But this is revolutionary!” “It looks like a 4-year-old made it and then sneezed on it.”

First, an Exquisite Corpse update: The artist application window is now officially closed. Thank you to all who applied! The portfolios I’ve looked through so far are fantastic. I’m impressed not only by the quality of the art, but also by the variety of media (my inbox is filled with everything from animatronic sculpture to performance to guerilla art), themes (race, gender, sexuality, and class! death, decay, and the grotesque! beauty! freedom! promise Im not just throwing out buzzwords!), and applicants (artists range from emerging and still in school to established and with work that can be found in collections around the world, from the local to as far from Chicago as you can get—hello, Australian creatives!). Hmm, I believe I just drafted part of the exhibition’s press release with those juxtapositions. Artists, I will be contacting you within the next couple of days.

I also enjoyed being addressed as a “respected sir” in one of the cover letters.

Second, here’s my latest Sixty Inches From Center article, in which I interviewed the gallery director of Western Exhibitions, as well as a few artists, for insight into People Don’t Like to Read Art, a group show. (For the record, I love reading art. And reading. And art. Look at that!)

And now: We’ve examined conceptual art and its [monetary] value, as well as what we value in art and what draws us to particular works of art. (Those discussions are still active, by the way! Check out their comment sections to hobnob with your fellow collectors, artists, art professionals, and art lovers.) Let’s expand the conversation back to a more comprehensive level: concept vs. skill. Art Radar profiled a panel discussion on a very specific issue—the decline of contemporary ink painting—but one panelist’s observations resonate with the subject at hand:

All media, such as oil, are struggling with issues similar to those ink is facing. Today’s artists prefer to use multiple media rather than master a single medium. There is less need to grapple with challenging media because they are primarily interested in conceptual art; the medium of a work and its subject are mere tools for expressing an artist’s ideas.

I have my own opinions on the subject. As an artist myself, I try to strike a balance between technical skill (I can draw) and conceptual vision (for my thesis project at Columbia, I created hundreds of self-addressed and pre-stamped postcards, all blank save for the prompt, “Tell me one thing you dream of doing before you die—use this card as your canvas,” marked each with a code, and placed the cards in public spaces throughout Manhattan, using the codes to record where I left them; when the postcards returned to me, I was able to pinpoint the exact location of where each had been found, and thus created a map of the city from New Yorkers’ dreams—no technical skill needed), in addition to making needlessly verbose parenthetical statements. But I won’t trouble you with mine [yet].

What are your thoughts? The most common reaction to much contemporary art, I’ve found, is “I can do that.” I’ve also found that the proper response to such a grievance is “But you didn’t.” Many people may indeed be technically capable of executing what can be seen in galleries and museums, but they weren’t the ones who conceived the ideas behind those pieces in the first place, and that’s what counts. Or is it?

Can we excuse mediocre (or downright poor) craftsmanship if the artwork communicates a groundbreaking idea (perhaps the piece possesses great sociopolitical significance) or, more simply, a clever idea? If an idea is good enough, exactly how “good” must that idea be? Is it necessary for contemporary artists to master a medium? Which do you hold in higher esteem: technique or concept? Or do you regard both equally?

Excluded from this discussion, however, is James Franco trolling the art world. (And whatever you do, don’t read his prose. Ketchup randomness.)


  1. Well, i am going to take this from two angles, the first being that we are in an age where communication is of great importance and not just communication, but effective communication targeted at a particular audience, therefore a concept will be of greater priority as it transcends medium, used and style adopted.
    On the other hand, if the target audience is professionals in the field of art, then mastery of technique is of the utmost importance, as the concept becomes secondary. The target dictates whats more important not necessarily the artist

  2. @Olujeans 3.0 I cannot support your hypothesis. I think its critical to understand that while Art communicates, communication is not Art (in principle). The notion that as an Artist my readers or viewers are prepared for my work seems one step away from suggesting that I create preconceptual art and that my job is to meet my audience's expectation. What a horrible proposition. Part of the essential attraction creativity formalized in genres of art has for me personally is the knowledge that superior art carries a space of originality and possibility of new discovery within my being as well as the viewer/reader.

    With respect to Lam original question about tolerating subpar technique in order to appreciate an original concept. It's hard not to feel symmpathetic for such situations, only because of the history of suffering and abuse many well know associated with passions concerning art or a particular artist. In some ways, it can actually enhance one's experience not unlike very hot spices and toxic substances which more exotic gourmet's will include in a dish, "for taste," and find deep gratification afterwards listening to dinner guests exclaim the Chef's art with respect to such substances. However, I would limit such idiosyncratic qualities of artistic character to some discernible level of consistency, such that we are not distracted by it but merely notice it like a shingle outside of a shop. If the defect in technique however is systemic and lacking any focus or cultivating improvement as such owing to the artist's creative gestalt, then for me it would overwhelm and harm what might otherwise be present as creative conception or what have you.

    On this point I will have to give a bow to Olujeans though for his understanding of how there exists one demographic which possess such inflated egos they are incapable of allowing themsleves to be lost in another's original idea or creative concept and for them the only possibility which remains is to present them with BETTER TECHNIQUE, for that they can USE but the rest is copyright imfringement .

  3. So this discussion is asking which is more important - skills vs. concept? Isn't all great art BOTH? I have never seen any artwork that was so clever that I lost awareness of the shoddy technique. And on the other hand when great skill meets with an idea that makes me think and feel something that I hadn't thought about consciously before, well that is sublime. Isn't that the point? Why would one settle for less?

  4. I think it would be helpful to think of the art as music for a moment. A talented musician has a tendency toward expressiveness, but must learn the techniques of his instrument to fulfill his potential. Undeveloped artists might have some great ideas, but must acquire the skills to express them.

  5. Technique, material, form and content should appropriately/ingeniously support each other as part of the expression. Sometimes, as in the Arte Povera movement, a 'shoddy technique' is EXACTLY and ONLY the thing that carries the idea of the work and, in that, is the totality of the work.

  6. Thanks for bringing up target audiences, Olujeans. What is an artist without an audience, after all? Although it does raise the issue of pandering to a particular demographic and whether that sacrifices the integrity of artist's work, which IB has touched upon.

    Personally I'm with sewliz in thinking that "great" art--"great" being defined as the art that I enjoy the most--has both qualities.

    Holly, thinking of music is effective. Hammer-on guitar solos à la hair metal, for instance, do nothing except bore me; I don't care how fast or fancy the fingerwork may be. That said, a musician who's expressive but has little skill wouldn't impress me either.

    All great comments. Keep them coming!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...