When I was a much younger man scouring used book stores I once found book titled 'Echt raak is dodelijk, ook voor de kunst' by Jan G. Elburg. Translated loosely as 'A direct hit is deadly, also in art', it has been a title that has stuck with me ever since.
Throughout the years that followed I've been frustrated time and time again by the seeming inability for anybody working inside art to say something direct and beyond dispute. All the while finding some my own more on the nose statements about art falling on deaf ears and smothered before they were given half a chance to live. 'A direct hit is deadly, also in art.'
While this definition has received more scorn than praise in the last seven-odd years, echoes of it can be found in the writings and statements of some other well-known artists, so a whiff of similar sentiment must be in the air, as they say.
Mark Manders for example explains his relationship to a non-art context in an 2012 interview with Nickel van Duijvenboden:
'It seemed like an interesting mental experiment - from then on whenever I made things - to imagine clearing a space in a supermarket and setting up the work there first. Would it stand its ground without the art context, without the aesthetics of the museum space? Everything I make should be able to withstand that mental test. With some of the larger works I imagine IKEA in Ghent. That's a truly hideous setting.
Why would you want to relate to such a place?
It's the reality in which we find ourselves, whether you like it or not. That's what our living environment should look like, in its most common form. My works often refer to a living room. I know for certain that a work like Room with Chairs and Factory can stand its ground, even in IKEA. If I were to exhibit it there for a public that has no affinity whatsoever with art it would still be obvious that someone had set up something there. That somebody had done something intentionally. It would definitely arouse a response, probably a stronger response than with a more art-aware public.
Doesn't that frighten you?
[Surprised] Not at all, why should it? Look, I only apply this kind of mental exercise once I've completed the work. Until that moment it doesn't concern me. All the works that I've made, bar one, can function without the art context. The only work that can't is Short Sad Thoughts. It would go unnoticed. It doesn't declare itself as a decision, as something made and left behind. It requires a museum setting for that.'
Another artist who likes to speak about his work in practical, grounded terms is Robert Gober, who nevertheless has always aimed at making powerful and poetic work.
He says about a sculpture that looks like a tissue box placed on a child's chair over a grate:
'One time in San Francisco someone asked me what the piece meant. I responded that he should understand what it is physically before worrying about meaning.'
The tissue box is, of course, made of bronze instead of cardboard and it sits on top of a very light and fragile plastic chair.
The history of another sculpture, a replica of a plank of plywood, is also interesting in this regard:
'The type of plywood that I was interested in recreating was a 4' x 8' x 3/4" piece of plywood that is used for subflooring or rough construction. The problem that I encountered is that this quality of wood veneer is not sold in retail stores. There are many veneers of wood available but this particular type is too rough and too brittle and splintery and filled with defects to be of any use other than in the creation of basic plywood. I tried contacting plywood manufacturing plants but no one was interested in humoring my request. It can be very difficult to get a high volume manufacturer to stop what they are doing to accommodate such a small order. In ended up hiring Peter Ballantine who made all of Donald Judd's wooden plywood sculptures. Peter had a relationship with a plywood manufacturer and was able to convince them to let me purchase this veneer. I had to buy a full flatbed truck of rough veneer, which was shipped from Oregon.
The sculpture is not built like an actual piece of plywood, where different layers are sandwiched in different directions for strength. There is a core of particle board. The ends are faked in the sandwich pattern and a full piece of veneer was glued to both front and back.
This work was vandalized twice and when I speak about my work, I am invariably asked why this is a sculpture, which is odd to me because it is in so many ways such a traditional sculpture, steeped in a deep history of still life.'
More recently I've found a passage by Walead Beshty in his text 'Notes for an introductory lecture', which comes the closest to my own formulation that I've encountered so far. It reads:
'Through the accumulation of patterns of use, certain conventions become standardized. Painting, for example, has developed a certain set of base conventions (e.g. canvas, rectilinear form, wall as support, portability). These conventions form the starting point for a dialogue, an agreement regarding the nature of the communication that will be taking place. For example, if a painting has a 'conventional' relationship to the wall on which it hangs, we would be acting in bad faith if we were to discuss the paint on the wall as part of the work. In art, these conventions designate what is inside and what is outside of the work. The boundary between the work and its surroundings is manifest through its adherence to convention.'
Beshty is an artist who is known for his prolific writing, yet he nevertheless falls into the common trap of thinking about artworks in terms of finished objects, rather than relating art to its mode of production. This leads him at the beginning of his text to assert the rather banal idea that 'the most precise thing one could say about art is that it is a discourse about aesthetics staged through aesthetics'. Which for being 'the most precise thing one can say' sure looks an awful lot like a blanket statement.
Additionally, there is the hyperrealistic sculpture of a Christmas tree by Philippe Parreno. This is titled Fraught Times: For Eleven Months of the Year it's an Artwork and in December it's Christmas (July). Which in this context ought to speak for itself, even if Parreno's personal views on art are otherwise likely incongruous with my own.
All these statements strike me as roundabout ways to make the same point I'm trying to make. Which is a very egocentric way of approaching their texts, where I might be placing words in other people's mouths that they hadn't meant that way at all.
This tendency can perhaps explain why this circumlocutory way of speaking remains so popular inside art. For if the meaning and boundaries of what you're expressing isn't clear and precisely formulated, then it is much easier for others to project their own ideas into them, further absolving you from your own responsibility for anything you might have thought about the subject.