Monday, May 12, 2008

Goldsworthy Redux

Two years ago I had the amazing experience of being an intern at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, an experience that was partially documented on my previous blog "The Starbucks Experiment" (so named because my day job, literally my 5 am to noon job, was at Starbucks). As readers of that blog know, my main project at NGA was to conduct research on Andy Goldsworthy, a contemporary British land artist who had recently completed a permanent work in the Gallery. However, Goldsworthy is better known for his "ephemeral" works, which usually involve tramping through the landscape and created a sculpture out of leaves or something that will disintegrate in a matter of time. What's interesting about these supposedly ephemeral works is that Goldsworthy always photographs them, as though to create a permanent record, gives the works a title and sells the photographs to the public in gallery-grade prints and mass-market books.

I've found myself thinking about these photo-works again in my visual culture theory class on "Word & Image," and conveniently enough, for our final project we were asked to revise our thinking on something we had worked on previously. This has given me the perfect opportunity to pour over my Goldsworthy research, which is much more voluminous than I remembered. It's basically my mini Arcades Project, about 50 pages of single-spaced typed notes, most of which are block quotes from various sources, organized under often-amusing headings like "how is Goldsworthy's work post-modern?" Even more amusing are my own comments, which reveal disturbingly simple ideas about words & images like "images are silent, words speak." How could a good art historian write such a thing!

So, for my paper I'm analyzing word-image combinations in Goldsworthy's most recent book,
Enclosure. And although they bring up lots of thorny issues that we've raised in class, I find myself coming back to the one word-image issue our class didn't address: titles. I never realized before how titles constitute Art (with a capital A). Example: Judy Chicago's Dinner Party designates an installation piece that is a work of art, as opposed to say, what you had to celebrate your birthday. But other objects that art historians study for their historical and aesthetic significance do not get italicized titles and, by implication, are not Art. Almost all decorative arts fall into this category, so that a set of works I'm writing on for another class are captioned as "Susan Frackelton, Dessert Plates, hand-painted porcelain, c. 1890" and not as "Susan Frackelton, Dessert Plates." What amazes me is the great lengths that art historians have gone to in order to preserve this "artist's name + italicized title = artwork" equation, routinely making up artist's names and titles like "The Master of the Apocalypse" (yes there really is one) or Still Life with Goblet.

Goldsworthy manipulates these conventions to distinguish between documentary and Art photography. Most of the photos that show the construction of his more permanent works are given simple captions. But when the photo is of an ephemeral work, that is, a work which no longer exists outside the photograph, then the image is designated as Art and captioned with an italicized title. I won't argue with the sheer convenience of italicizing titles of artworks, the way a simple change in typeface lets the reader know that the author means Judy Chicago's installation and not a form of hospitality involving the main meal of the day, but Goldsworthy's titles also show how they can be used to ease anxieties about what is and is not a work of art. Those conventions for separating art from non-art are worth questioning, and I'll argue with them in my own way, by boldly writing a seminar paper in which Susan Frackelton's Dessert Plates are italicized, each and every time.

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