Art Lies, Volume 1, March 1994

16

How far are
we f om
.works o art
that s ea to F
us cirdctl -
that spe to
us WIthout
. the extra
intervento n
crit c-or
or that
matter, eyen
ot the artist?
Currently on view at Houston's Museum of Fine
Arts is a survey exhibition organized by Janet
Landay, Speaking of Artists: Words and Works
from Houston. This exhibition aims to bridge the
gaps that exist between the average person and
the artist. In juxtaposing the works themselves
with biographical texts about their makers, the
exhibition attempts to educate and inform the
public about art in general and to give the viewer
an insider's look into the world of art. In a
reciprocal move, Landay has interlaced into the
exhibition a survey taken on the streets of
Houston. It is a survey of individuals who know
little about artists, the current local art scene, or
even art history. Speaking of Artists offers the
viewer the opportunity to consider and also to
evaluate the thoughts of both the artists and the
general public.
Most assuredly, this is a show specifically
designed for outsiders. Recognizing this potential
audience, it presents the opportunity for people
to progress carefully into a world of foreign ideas
and realities. But, I wonder how foreign this world
really is to outsiders, if everyone seeing this work
and reading these words hasn't already felt
them-at least a glimmer of them. And I wonder
if this approach isn't just a little patronizing.
The show as a whole comes off as playful. But
with its excursions into the heavier and heartier
zone of the spirit, it is far from frivolous. Although
there is no immediate thematic continuity among
the works displayed, the exhibition's textual
fabric effectively binds them. And the texts
themselves are filled with idealisms, so that the

general tone of the exhibition remains upbeat,
even friendly.
Most of the artworks have been seen before in
previous local exhibitions (because they are all in
the museum's permanent collection), but in this
context they read differently. Here, they are
clearly subservient to the ulterior concerns the
show presents. As a microcosm of the larger
world, Speaking of Artists is rife with implication.
It resonates with a wish for the mutual fulfillment
of artists and the general public. But, although the
suggestion of a communion between these
groups is optimistic in tone, the great
divide remains.
Speaking of Artists: Words and works from
Houston operates as a two-edged sword,
ultimately serving to highlight the naivete on both
sides. If it succeeds in allowing any of us to
recognize our presuppositions about those on the
other side, it will have accomplished much. The
artist has the most to gain from this enlightened
view, because it is the artist who has the most at
stake. And, it is the artist who is finally forced to
acknowledge the condition of exile and alienation.
It is the artist who is given the hope that the
period of exile might be nearing its end. We are
not far here from the naive populist impression
that if artists would only stop being so difficult
and acknowledge that invisible public, address it
directly, abandoning self-referential, overly
specialized languages, then they could rejoin their
brothers and sisters in a happier humanity.
It seems to me that the museum is being all too

friendly in its gesture of approaching the public.
Displaying the work of just one of these artists in
some depth would be more powerful and might
do more to inspire the average person than this.
Many people walking in from the street are
uncomfortable sifting through reams of
information on disparate artists with entirely
different philosophies and attitudes regarding art.
To speak for a great many people like me, we
prefer to plunge directly into a visually immediate
experience rather than take the time to read a
profusion of texts and captions. It might have
made a great book, but in its present form, this
exhibition may be too clinical for many of us and
also too confusing, regardless of the integrity of
its aspirations. To us, it comes off as diluted and
didactic and decidedly not about the
experience of art.
The compulsion of art, the compulsion to look and
finally to make, that pushes us far beyond our
institutions' invitations, permissions, and
encouragements is well documented here. But
this exhibition does not allow the power of these
compulsions to reach the public in a direct and
unmediated form. This is not Landay's mission.
Nevertheless, Speaking of Artists: Words and
works from Houston is very enlightening. The
street interviews are informative for those, like
myself, relatively ignorant about the general, non
art-going public. More importantly, the artists'
statements leave us with an appreciation of artists
as everyday people who fashion their art within a
broad base of ideas, to diverse ends, and often
outside the classical canon.*

Carroll, Don. Art Lies, Volume 1, March 1994. Houston, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth228034/. Accessed April 17, 2014.