Art & Development

art that speaks for itself v. artist that speaks for herself

Rage is all the rage right now, particularly the populist sort.

–Geoff Nunberg, “The Ghost of Populism Walks Again, “Fresh Air” Commentary, 3/30/09 (Read the transcript or listen on

I prefer art that speaks for itself.

–Comment by Amateur on “Christine Wong Yap, Oakland, CA,”, February 17, 2008.

To explain why artists who let the work “speak for itself” are vulnerable, Adrian Piper presents a hypothetical example of an artist whose work is misinterpreted by a critic:

The important point is that if you have not developed the tools–and guts–to correct this edgy, but mistaken, interpretation of your work…, you have effectively lost control of [your art’s] public meaning. You’ll become rich, inarticulate and misunderstood. If the systematic public misinterpretation of your artwork … worries you, then you better learn to write about it, the way art critics do, so as to correct the misunderstanding.

Once an artist has that tool in hand, she has a voice in the cycle of critical and institutional legitimation that may work to her benefit, or to her disadvantage. It may work to her artistic benefit, if her main interest is in encouraging accurate understanding of her intentions in doing the work. But for that very reason, it may work to her professional disadvantage, if her more spoiled critical fans get really excited [about their interpretations], but don’t want to hear about [her actual intentions]. An artist who publicly corrects a critic’s factual mistakes or mistaken interpretations of her work or even worse, the critic’s fuzzy thinking, bad grammar or sick personal agendas, may draw attention while she also makes a lot of enemies. So if you decide to speak up, just don’t expect to be loved. If you want to be loved, let everyone think [their own interpretations.]

Adrian Piper, “Criticizing the Critics,” keynote lecture at Frieze, 9/27/07


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