Un/Titled Art

Sometimes it’s perplexing for artists to figure out what to call the result of an essentially non-verbal experience, since naming can be a profound appropriation of meaning and therefore of understanding and appreciation. Furthermore, an artist’s tendency to title work in a certain way often indicates the origin of their art spirit. What makes mature work is the artist’s ability to universalize the particular, which means that sentimentality–the glorification of the particular–must be avoided except, of course, when making propaganda.

An academic terminology (involving a simple, objective description of form and content, such as “Still Life with Knife and Onions”) tends to elevate the tone of a piece to a more serious aesthetic level, although the academic use of irony usually becomes nothing more than pompous, condescending sarcasm. And beware–titles with colons in them are pretentiously over-explanatory, without exception. Personalizing a title (as in “Amber’s Favorite Things”) alienates viewers who don’t happen to belong to the artist’s implied intimate group, which is most of us; indulging in poetic license (“Romantic Reverie” or “Peaceful Zinnias”) panders to shallow emotional responses rooted in a pleasure principle devoid of any expansive aesthetic or critical feeling. In the best case, however, the emotional tone of a piece can be tuned pitch-perfect by a thoughtful title.

So, the fewer words in a title the better. One-word titles may be the best, though the feeble compromise of titling something “Untitled” means that eventually someone will attempt to differentiate a body of such work with numbers, colons, parenthetical descriptions, and other devices of commercial and scholarly accounting. A careful study of the great works of art history will help the artist to appreciate the deep resonance of simple naming in order to describe the complex work of speaking the visual language of art.
Doug Riggs

originally published August 1, 2011

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