Protecting Ambiguity

It seems that everyone agrees about the catchphrase problem, but there is another concerning artists’ self-limitation; i.e. a problem that “is not concrete, it’s an attitude that is taken on ourselves” as Steve Lambert puts it. This is what prevents artists from putting their ideas “into real practice” (Harrell Fletcher). And this is why we should attempt to support the artists in yielding their power instead of wielding it through a discussion on “some bigger ideas” than language (Lambert). In turn, this will allow artists to avoid being “disempowered and disengaged with real situations and issues” (Fletcher).

So far, we are with you all the way. Attitude can become form. But when content is given to “real practice” and “bigger ideas” in this discussion, the two of us feel like we are docking from a flight that is arriving from a different planet. For an artist, “real practice” would be to make “work that has direct function in society,” Fletcher tells us; and among the “bigger ideas,” Lambert mentions, “being legible to larger audiences, working with intention.” We are stunned. Or at least concerned. Or perhaps we are missing the point. Perhaps we are just terribly naïve and romantic, too aware of the history of modern art and fond of the strategies provided by the early avant-garde with regard lending art to external purposes. We think Mary Mattingly is onto something similar when she speaks about the relationship between media, propaganda and art. Yes. There is art that has an impact on society. There are socially engaged practices that create change. But truly – if our cause henceforth would be to instrumentalize, popularize and standardize artistic activity into a productive behavior like any other, we wouldn’t get up in the morning. Ever.

Sorry for returning to language but it seems to be an appropriate way of finding out where we got lost in this discussion. Mattingly states: “Being interested in something points to a detachment and furthermore a belief that we are liberated, autonomous actors. This seems to be what ‘democratic’ media wants us to understand, yet we are never truly autonomous and always informed by the larger political field.” But in our interpretation, artists use the phrase because it is functional and primarily serves as protection rather than expressing belief. As we are writing this in Sweden, we are literally on a different continent. And in comparison to the U.S., we’re not very good at self-promotion in Europe – understatement has been the norm in the art world of the Nordic region until quite recently. This might also be one reason why we don’t fully understand why the phrase “I am interested in” so far has been treated as a failure. Or rather, why pre-evaluation in an artist statement is at all necessary.

Let us expand. One aspect that has not been discussed in this forum yet can hopefully be made more clear, with the regional cultural cliché provided above in mind, is the following: In a recent studio visit with an established “political” Swedish artist a similar discussion cropped up, and the spontaneous reaction from the artist as to why ambivalent phrases could come in handy had to do with a personal discomfort or bashfulness in regards to making public statements (“They’re always so definite”), and a genuine humility and attempt to speak honestly about an unpredictable process (“If I say that I am interested in something, it means that I do not have to deliver certain truths and can remain more ambivalent, like the work itself”). Saying you are interested can, in other words, also be a way to talk about something without moralizing it; a means of allowing the viewer or user of an artwork to engage with it, and understand that it is an artwork, but without being told how to do so. Distance is essential to perspective.


Robert Smithson’s Study for Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan Island, 1970, Collection of Joseph E, Seagram & Sons, Inc. (Image via Walker Art Center)

In short: “I am interested in” can be a device to create space where something unexpected can happen, a zone of indeterminacy both for the artist to work from within, and for the public to experience the work without criteria, utility or aims being pre-fixed for them – a zone where no one tries to convince you to believe or respond in a shortsighted, predefined or predictable manner (say, like successful advertising or propaganda might do). This is undoubtedly close to Robert Smithson’s experience that art uses “perception as deprivation of action and reaction.”[1] The viewer is not supposed to react, but act. And not necessarily in the right way, right away. Art can allow things to remain complex, or better yet: it can make things even more complicated.

Beyond the indication that an increased audience requirement of instrumental value for the community can be mutilating for artists, the bottom line here is the normative question of reliability, trustworthiness and the power to convince. Who are we to say that artists shouldn’t be able to dwell in a zone of ambiguity together with a maybe less numerous public, instead of trying to convince people that they are delivering useful stuff just like everybody else (beyond using jargon to get away with not doing useful stuff)?

A distinctive characteristic of academic and commercial art is indeed that it has a convincing structure, sometimes even with a performative twist that makes it reflect on its own conditions. Which also makes it rather convincing, easy to speak about, explain and justify. But when art is not pre-adjusted to discourse, or simply, when it is fantastic but unreliable, we cannot see why the artist should be there to be trustworthy in place of the work. Why should discourse deliver that comfort and sense of trust, which the works themselves do not?

We believe that when persuasive stuff is produced through art (and sometimes this happens), it can also produce sufficient grounds for its distribution (arguments). But when it is not so immediate, it is because the agency and efficacy of art primarily relies on a precarious, indeterminate in-between zone – which, paradoxically perhaps, is a place where things really can start to change. The topic is how to empower artists, and one answer is: by protecting this zone. Protecting this zone – so that it is not colonized by the market, cultural politics or academia – allows art to operate beyond the restrictions created by demands of reaching larger audiences and a more “real” practice. We believe that a common consciousness of the modus operandi of art, which respects the integrity of artistic processes, would give art the means to trust in a power it already holds.

[1] Nancy Holt (ed.) The Writings of Robert Smithson (New York: New York University Press, 1979), p. 12


Read more from Growing Dialogue: No Longer Interested

“No Longer Interested” by Steve Lambert – April 1, 2014

“Difference Not Indifference” by Mary Mattingly – April 2, 2014

“In Defense of Interest” by Harrell Fletcher – April 3, 2014

“The Strategies of Artspeak” by Jonatan Habib Engqvist & Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen – April 4, 2014

“Sleight of Hand” by Jim Duignan – April 7, 2014

“What Do We Really Want?” by Steve Lambert – April 8, 2014

“Breaking Out of the Studio/Gallery Paradigm” by Harrell Fletcher – April 9, 2014

“Protecting Ambiguity” by Jonatan Habib Engqvist & Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen – April 10, 2014

“Collective Power” by Mary Mattingly – April 11, 2014

“Time Traveling” by Jim Duignan – April 14, 2014

“Why Are You Avoiding the Question?” by Steve Lambert – April 15, 2014

“Taking On the World at Large” by Deborah Fisher – April 16, 2014

“What Artists Think Is Possible” by Harrell Fletcher – April 17, 2014

“Exploring the In-Between” by Jim Duignan – April 18, 2014

“Impossible Understanding” by Jonatan Habib Engqvist & Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen – April 21, 2014

“Inventive Contradictions” by Mary Mattingly – April 23, 2014

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Jonatan Habib EngqvistLars-Erik Hjertström LappalainenNo Longer Interested
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