Artists' Voices by Sally Price
Published in the exhibition catalog, the text written by Sally Price is cross-disciplinary and complementary, casting a critical eye on the exhibition.
Looking at a work of art can evoke different kinds of reactions. One, of course, is sheer aesthetic pleasure. Another one involves imagining the artist’s intent in making it. Even a connoisseur as single-mindedly focused on the aesthetic dimension as Jacques Kerchache argued that the most important thing for him, in looking at a work of art, was to understand ‘la capacité de l’artiste de trouver des solutions plastiques originales’ – that is, to imagine the artist working out his/her approach to an artwork in progress, to enter his/her head at the moment when he/she is conceptualizing the form that it will take.
The question then becomes: What is the best way to arrive at an understanding of the artist’s intent during the process of creation? How can we best tell its story? A venerable tradition in the discipline of art history allows for a method that closely resembles literary criticism – that is, deducing intent from a combination of aesthetically sensitive viewing and general knowledge of the circumstances in which it was made (where in the world, in what society, in what historical period, etc.)
From the perspective of a cultural anthropologist, this approach poses a real problem simply because of the power it gives to ‘received wisdom’ or popular stereotypes concerning art produced outside of the once-traditional territories of art historical scholarship such as Ancient Greece, the Italian Renaissance, or modern Europe. And it poses a similar problem for the understanding of art that, while produced within those ‘traditional areas’, is made by artists thought of as ‘naïve’ or ‘outsider’ or ‘visionary’. Reading the creative intent of the artists represented (for example) in the Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or in the Musée du quai Branly in Paris is a particularly delicate/daunting undertaking, requiring viewers with ‘Western’ cultural views (whether they live in Paris, Chicago, Tokyo, Lagos or Kuala Lumpur) to evacuate from their minds all the commonly held ideas they have acquired over the years about ‘primitive peoples’. In much the same way, understanding the kinds of art represented in the Histoires de voir: Show and Tell exhibition at the Fondation Cartier takes a special effort at avoiding preconceptions regarding what are often quite idiosyncratic personal visions.
How do we accomplish this difficult task? Listening to the artists would sound like an obvious answer. But it can be harder than one imagines to divest oneself of generalizing preconceptions concerning people who are in some fundamental way different from oneself – whether by cultural identity, personal psychology, educational background, or some other variable.
Excerpt from the exhibition catalog.
Photo: Olivier Ouadah