James Brett: Nigel I want us to talk about a big idea, about art and how we classify it. Take the example of Harald Stoffers, one of the artists in our show. Many people see and the text within it and talk about Cy Twombly. I feel this is too easy and patronising: Cy Twombly is a contemporary art reference. Let’s take the example of Harald Stoffers. A viewer might compare it to Cy Twombly.If Cy Twombly did it, it would certainly be art.
Harald Stoffers, Untitled, Galerie der Villa, Germany
JB: Which is my point. It’s a formalist appreciation and also a comparative one. Cy Twombly comes with all kinds of references, contexts, Twombly baggage. It’s really a different thing.
NW: The problem is that we can’t naïvely see the work we’re talking about unaware of Cy Twombly. We look at Stoffers and see a history of mad scrawlings across big canvases throughout art history. We read it and think: yes, I can see it, that’s beautiful, that’s got some kind of profundity about it. In part, that’s because we have already seen this sort of art (we think) before.
People are obsessed with language in the 20th Century and language that doesn’t make sense becomes interesting in and by itself. It represents something, it becomes a symbol. If you think about all the ways in which we can see writing and reflect on the nature of writing, the links that the work doesn’t make with the world become interesting. As sophisticated viewers of art, we read all that into it. There’s an immediacy about it, the use of colour and inscription, the physicality of the obsessive line, drawing almost like a stave, on which the writing’s overwritten. It turns into a physical thing which we appreciate, the same way we appreciate the gestures of a painting, we see the brush strokes and we get a sense of the physical way in which that’s all there. The obsessive qualities become attractive because they are so relentless.
JB: It becomes art through us, not through the artist.
NW: It’s art because it’s a visual creation that’s been exhibited for the appreciation of others. It’s self-expressive, which is characteristic of a lot of artists. Yet you want to communicate that this is a primary sense of art, not just a peripheral sense.
There is a simplistic view of artistic intention as the mental events that precede the application of paint to a canvas: the idea that I’m going to make a mark here and now I’m going to do it. That’s not how most artists work.
It’s also not how sports people do what they do. They don’t typically think about what they are going to do and then do it, they just do it. People might call them intuitive, immediate or visceral, but it’s no different from the artists you’re talking about, who just make the thing they want to make and engage with the medium in a particular way - possibly not in a highly self-reflective way, but so what? For most artists in their studios, there’s a moment where they stand back and think about things because there’s that moment when they’re close to it.
JB: They post-rationalise.
NW: The post-rationalisation is part of the process. You read Francis Bacon on this and there’s a lot on doing stuff, thinking about it, looking at the marks he’s made, reacting to what he’s done. He was a very articulate examiner of his own methodology, which is not the case with every artist. There are no doubt artists who think things through and then do it; but there are many who just do it. And in the world of sport, if you were to think about every shot you played just before you played it, to insist you have those intentions would be absurd.
We still say, he meant to side-step, or she meant to get the ball in the net, but in terms of reaction times, a cricketer can’t actually analyse the potential shots in that split-second. They react to the ball from where it comes in. Presumably there’s a similar sort of immediacy with these artists.
JB: What you’re saying is that the fact of making is itself evidence of the intention to make. They didn’t just fall over and this was the result. It was deliberate, but that deliberateness was not about concepts, it was about the doing of the thing.
NW: They didn’t intend to make this to sell it in Cork Street or get it into Tate Modern. That was not the intention. It may be a secondary intention for some artists, but not the artists you are exhibiting.
JB: So that thing we call art, is an instinctive idea rather than an intellectualised or rationalised idea. If we look historically at the first discovery of this work, which seemed to happen around the same time as Duchamp, whilst Duchamp was busy saying you can place your art tag on anything, the work coming out of the psychiatric clinics and hospitals didn’t get formally called art until Dubuffet. He was the first to say that it was art. He came in and gave it the seal of art approval.
NW: Isn’t that to do with the history of aesthetic appreciation? If you read Collingwood on this, art as craft was the dominant model of what art is. Once we relinquished that idea, that skill prerequisites have to be met before you can be considered an artist, it became a lot easier to say anyone doing anything, potentially, could be considered an artist.
The next question - which is a more interesting one – is are they any good? That’s what The Museum of Everything is saying: we’ve discovered a number of people who have made things which are really good, stimulating not just as relics of a definition of some kind of psychiatric disturbance, but as art.
JB: Indeed. Interestingly enough, historically this work was always found in anthropological museums.
NW: The Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery is full of dismembered altars which weren’t made primarily as gallery paintings. There are plenty of examples where art galleries exhibit things which haven’t been created specifically as artworks.
JB: What I see is that whenever museums do exhibit this work, they do so within its own context.
NW: That’s an institutional issue. There’s not the same kind of money in exhibiting the work you are showing. It’s not linked to collectors who have a multi-million pound investment in a particular work or artist, Jeff Koons for example. There are also very few galleries that sell these works - and the artists are rarely in a position to market their own work themselves.
JB: It’s true - and the best workshops include the marketing and selling as part of their structure. They know if you don’t sell, you don’t exist.
NW: Art contains room for interpretation. If you knew everything that was going through an artists’ mind, the physical work would become redundant - if it was simply meant to be rooted in intentions and nothing else. If you’ve got access to the intentions by some other means, you’ve got access to the bit that’s interesting. That’s certainly true with a lot of conceptual art.
Surely the point though is that the work you are showing is visually arresting and open to multiple interpretations, some more plausible than others. This is intriguing because of the ideas it sets off in you, as much as the ideas from which it originated. It’s not just about what the psychology is of the person who created the work, but what the object has in its potential to stimulate an artistic view of it as an object.
JB: The question is: how do we present this work in such a way that it is not simply categorised as its own thing, separate from art itself?
NW: You might say there is a different aesthetic needed for work by these people who aren’t consciously in the art world: an aesthetic that requires greater attention to the object, that demands we get back to looking and interpreting so that we understand by projecting our own interpretations.
In the conventional art world the easy way to understand art is to see it as being produced by an individual with a particular intention, in a particular art-history-aware context, because otherwise it’s too bizarre, we can’t understand it.
The works you’re showing have a degree of legibility, immediately there’s something interesting and appealing, in contrast to much contemporary art where aesthetic aspects have been deliberately sidelined.
JB: I’m looking to differentiate this from craft or objects - or simply from what is termed outsider art.