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  • Hélène Planquelle

You can't understand most art? Not your fault

Thanks for joining me on my artistic journey!  Today I will talk about art criticism, and tackle these two old-time questions in the field: does an artist's opinion about their work matters more than the viewers? And how much should viewers know about the artist's intention to understand it?

This reflection was brought about by a beautiful in-depth article written about my work by Rui Freitas from the Portuguese online media, Artes & Contextos, which you can read here in its English version.

The process of making this interview was incredibly exciting and got me to verbalize aspects of my vision of art that deeply inform my practice - but I was never asked about (the sign of proper art criticism my friend !)

Today's topic: how everybody can understand art and why it's not your fault if you don't...

Today, I see many people disconcerted by the content of most contemporary art galleries - to be honest, I often am myself - thinking understanding art requires a Ph.D. of some sort, as its meaning often seems utterly opaque, if not totally irrelevant to "real" people's daily life concerns. Well, here is good news for you: this is not your fault!

I will start with a disclaimer: I am not an art historian, neither am I an art critic... I am merely an artist...

Right, an artist: an actual maker of the art that might later be commented on by art critics or historians. But on top of that, I am a "consumer" of art myself, and being on both sides allows me to see clearly the discrepancy between the artist's side of art-making and the way it is perceived and conveyed to the audience, which is really well summed up by this passage from an article of the Guardian on the topic (which doesn't reach the same conclusion as I do, however):

"(...) many academics or critics exploit art's "messages" for self-interested methodological or political ends. But many excellent artists leave themselves defenseless against such hijacking because they cannot articulate persuasively why they do what they do. And further complicating these relationships is that many artists who can explain their work are more articulate verbally than visually, which is why much of bad art is not really art but is rather merely illustrations of ideas."

So we can agree on two profiles of artists, hence recurring problems:

  • Articulate artists whose ideas and concepts are more elaborated than the actual resulting work of art. (That moment when you think: "Oh, I get it, this is smart, but still it's ugly")

  • Inarticulate artists on whose work critics elaborate based on their assumptions and agenda, regardless of the artist's true intention.

I have already experienced reading an article about my art written by a critic thinking: "this is finely written for sure, but it totally biases the meaning and intention of my work."

More than anything, a work of art draws most of its meaning and value from the contextual facts that surround it. It is primary an immediate esthetic experience for the viewer, but it is also the "story" that surrounds it, the ground from which it has arisen, meaning: a specific person and a specific time and place. Because ultimately, artworks are a means to enrich and deepen bonds between human beings, to breach the gap between our subjectivities, and experience what it is to be in someone else's mind. So what the artist had in mind always matters!

It's quite obvious that, let's say, the mere portrait of an old person acquires different depth if you learn that this man is a Holocaust survivor or the symbolic embodiment of an ancient Greek God (see the amazing work of David Kassan and Roberto Ferri below) - or your grandma who you dearly love for that matter.

However, it is now very important to state that it is the artist's job to help you understand what their work is about! And not yours...

Although you are responsible for looking for this information in order to gain a deeper understanding of the work, the artist is responsible for providing it! So the next time you find yourself in front of a puzzling contemporary art piece entitled "Untitled" with no explanations provided - or super abstract ones that don't use common language - don't feel dumb, feel pissed! Because it means someone somewhere is not doing their job! (And finds very fashionably elitist to keep growing the gap between contemporary art and its audience.) Now to circle this little talk back to my own practice, here are two common misinterpretations of my work I have encountered so far :

  • An overemphasis on the "erotic" aspect of my images, sometimes going up to calling them "sexual".

Although there is a clear sensual quality to my works, I would never call them "erotic", even less "sexual", as I am by no means talking about sex or eroticism. Instead, my focus is on human bonds and human relationships. But as humans, we have bodies, and we always relate to others through our bodies, so the sensuality of my images is merely a by-product of my vision of the "mind/body" relationship.

  • A feminist reading based on the fact that I represent scenes of struggle and coercion of women by men.

I do talk about violence in relationships, yet I am mostly using scenes of physical violence to symbolize psychological and emotional forms of violence between all genders -men and men, women and men, women and women. I am not intentionally looking to emphasize one gender dynamic as my point of view aims at being universal.

Now this being said, there remain many ways to interpret and receive my works and I invite viewers to put in their own experience and sensitivity. Ok, if you have made it through this long block of texts with only two images, I hope you enjoyed it! I promise you that next time, I will go back to sharing process shots of a new body of works I am creating for an art fair in Los Angeles next February!


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