joanne lee

 

critical enchantment

2004  Henry Moore Institute Research Fellowship: Critical Enchantment

Exploring material in the HMI Archive and Library, Leeds, I examined informal elements of artists’ discourse, especially material in private notebooks/sketchbooks or recorded on tape during relatively casual interviews. I was particularly interested to consider material from artists whose art education had preceded the current orthodoxies of critical language, in order to find evidence of other approaches that might be available for development in teaching, writing and making.

Afterwards, I wrote this short report about the experience for the Henry Moore Institute Newsletter:

‘Art is not worth talking about. It might possibly be worth doing – depending entirely upon who does it.’  So said George Fullard in a notebook held in the Archive of the Henry Moore Institute. Upon reading this, I blanched. In the related roles of artist and programme leader of a Fine Art degree course, I probably spend most of my working life talking about art! In fact the whole reason for being in the Archive in the first place was born out of a desire to find different, better ways of talking about art…

Ultimately of course, I have to disagree with Fullard’s pronouncement. However, I would be among the first to admit that too much of the art writing and talk is not very useful for artists and art audiences alike. I’d go further, and assert that a great deal of that talk prevents interesting and useful thinking about art. I have felt such frustration at the limitations and repetitions of the languages we habitually encounter within art. My work with students tells me I am not alone in this: they too express dissatisfaction with many of the ideas and terms at their disposal.

I came to the Archive to find evidence of other approaches that might be available for development in teaching, writing and making. I chose to look at the informal elements of artists’ discourse, especially material in private notebooks and recorded on tape during relatively casual interviews. I was particularly interested to consider material from artists whose art education had preceded my own, before the current orthodoxies of critical language came to prominence in art schools.

What I discovered within the Archive was a wonderfully diverse body of material, happily defying neat classification. I found the strange poetry of artistic list making in Helen Chadwick’s notebooks, where a reminder to ‘photocopy badger’ nestles alongside another to ‘look at apes arses’. I read Hamo Thorneycroft’s description of cleaning marble with bread alongside his exasperation with modelling trousers and his reporting of incidents from the siege of Paris. I persisted with Leon Underwood’s attempts to understand the making and doing of art through maddeningly repetitive and insistent dialogues with himself. And I listened to Stephen Cox’s taped commentary upon his own notebooks with their blatant and often very funny obfuscations about the sexual sources for his work.

Of course this material very visibly evidences the combination of making and thinking, insight and stupidity, banality and strangeness that forms the actual process of ‘doing’ art. I like to think of this as a process of ‘critical enchantment’. It is a familiar territory for the majority of artists, and yet the languages we find ourselves using professionally within education, art criticism and theory very rarely pay any notice to such realities. I am currently working on a number of essays as well as writing a book, which attempts to articulate an alternative approach to art pedagogy and theory. The verbal, textual and oral material within the archive offered invaluable clues and suggestive models with which to articulate potential solutions for this work.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *