Describing Art

I took in most of the SculptureWalk in downtown Sioux Falls tonight.  It’s fun to check out the artwork, especially when there are as many animal sculptures as there are this year, and a couple of them are really wonderful.

It also got me thinking about describing art.

On each sculpture there is a little blurb from the artist about the piece.  For a couple it’s as simple as “I wanted to make a butterfly” but for most of them it is a chance to describe the work or even go into the symbolism and meaning of the piece.

When it’s the artist who is explaining, you know it’s a pretty credible explanation.  After all, that is the person who created the piece explaining what it means.  When I start questioning descriptions of meaning and intent is when it is done by someone other than the artist.

I’ve only seen this a few places – a particular piece at the Modern in Fort Worth springs to mind – but when there is a long description written by an art historian or critic describing what the artist meant, my first reaction is to ask how they would know.  I realize that the person writing the commentary is likely someone with an extensive background in art and a good familiarity with the artist in question, but I’m still not convinced.  It seems a bit like putting thoughts or words into someone else’s mouth.

Honestly, when it comes to art, I will read the description.  (I’m a reader, so my eyes are always drawn to words.)  I’m not going to base my opinion on the piece itself on the words, however.  I’ll base it on the art itself, which is (hopefully) what the artist intended.


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