What Work Does the Artwork Do?: Criticality and Context

On Thursday 4 December the symposium What Work Does the Artwork Do?: Criticality & Context brings together researchers, members of activist art groups and the general public interested in the place and role of art’s criticality. Instead of asking the definitional question ‘What is Art?’, the symposium provides a space to explore and debate the roles and purposes of artworks –  the work artworks do. Conceived by Reader Jo Melvin and Visiting Professor Chris Smith, the general public was invited to join the debate by contributing to Melvin’s and Smith’s open call for responses on the website, www.artandcriticality.org.

A few days in advance of the symposium, Melvin considers the website responses. ‘A call to contribute to the discussion about the role of art and the work we expect artwork to do would, one might imagine, in this University of the Arts context, create a deluge of respondents. Especially when we think of how frequently we “tweet”, “like”, “blog”, all the time, day in, day out, to our “friends”. Perhaps this is a knee jerk comment, on the hoof, off the cuff, a reaction, like itching a scratch that requires little or no critical reflection. And it is effected by a simple press of the button. Nonetheless, I find it surprising that at the time of writing, only one response has been made and there have been a few tentative questions asking whether, and how, it is possible to contribute.

This situation is worth unpacking. In order to do so I’m going to begin by relating the occasion when I first encountered paintings by Art & Language, at an exhibition at the ICA in the 1980s with a series of works entitled Incidents in a Museum. To see paintings was, for me, a surprise. I had expected to see text and maybe image and text, rather than text obscured by paint on canvases hanging on the wall, in a manner that appeared to me to be somewhat bereft. I was ill at ease and uncertain as to how to respond, disturbed and a little perplexed. Being perplexed, and holding on to the feeling of being perplexed, is in itself a slightly mysterious state of mind, because it is unquantifiable. Over the years, I have frequently come back to this space of uncertainty, of doubt and perplexedness in relation to the art encounter, the art “experience” in the studio and in the gallery, or wherever. Silence is hard to bear, generally in conversations, silences are perceived to be awkward. How we find a way to talk about being perplexed by art, being moved, astonished, enriched and enlivened is the beginning of our exchange with the work itself and by so doing we enter the space of uncertainty where we might end up somewhere different from where we started. This is of course a risky business and it draws out our responsibility, my responsibility, to the work itself and to the people with whom I am in discussion. Consider then, the work of art as an essay that gives voice surely gives rise to an urge to join and contribute and by so doing, stick your heads over the parapet.’

The link to contribute is live, and can be accessed here.

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