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What we talk about when we talk about art

Glenn Ligon's Malcolm X

I’m curious. I don’t know how to talk about art. I don’t know how to find the depths in a lot of it that others see. I feel uneducated in art theory, unprepared to talk with authority about a painting or a piece of sculpture. And yet I often visit galleries, I can tell you of paintings I have found moving, and I think it’s important that art is accessible to all in society. So why can’t I articulate this?

Apparently I’m not alone. Hardly anyone can write properly about art, says a friend of mine. Art, especially modern art, is about how it makes you feel, he says. Which is fine, but a lot of modern art often makes me feel nonplussed. And if you read or listen to folk talking about artists or exhibitions, it seems a lot of the conversation is dictated by conventional ideas of whether an artist can draw or not. (I remember the surprise expressed when visitors to the Lowry exhibition at Djanogly a few years back came across the sketches that showed Lowry could do more than matchstick men, like they’d thought he was just fudging it.)

If conversations about art are so dominated by convention or by white middle aged men of a certain class (Brian Sewell, Will Gompertz, Jonathan Jones et al) doesn’t this put others off? Should we try and talk about art in a more nuanced but accessible way? I decided to try. And where better to try out my writing about art skills than the new Glenn Ligon exhibition at the Contemporary?

Glenn Ligon's Malcolm XLigon has curated a series of paintings that helped to shape him as an artist. To me, a writer, this is the equivalent of having a nose through someone else’s bookshelf and reading their marginalia. And as an American History graduate, I also found the works on display to be fascinating and part of a story I’d studied. The exhibition notes contain a series of letters he wrote to some of the artists, telling them (and us) why he was influenced by them and, in doing so, gives us an insight into the works themselves.

Ligon’s story is part of black America, and so he brings together artists that helped tell that story and in placing them together you get a profound sense of a ‘movement’, a cultural shift. Some, like Robert Morris’s Untitled black felt piece could easily have a completely different effect if it was in a different exhibition with a different context – here, all you do is notice the colour. The same with the Jackson Pollock, it’s the colours he used that I noticed rather than anything else.

The emphasis on black and white is so strong that by the time I make it into the gallery featuring Andy Warhol and Beauford Delaney’s work, their colours are almost a shock to the system. And yet, I still find it hard to say anything about the Warhol – I don’t really ‘get’ him. I’m back to feeling nonplussed.

Glenn Ligon's I Lost my Voice I found my VoiceIf I’m honest, I’m also a little nonplussed by Ligon’s own work which is on display alongside the others. There are a couple of pieces I really like. One is the Untitled ‘America’ piece, the other Untitled ‘I lost my voice I found my voice.’ Yet, one of the reasons I think they work so well is because of the context in which they sit. Would I understand them as much if I saw them alone, somewhere else? I’m not sure. The rest leave me unmoved and perhaps confused. I don’t know what they are supposed to say to me about the man behind them, about why he did them like this or what he wants to convey. The Malcom X portrait, for example, left in negative and featuring coloured daubings is an odd piece. To me, the subject is obviously Malcolm X, a man whose character and legacy is strong enough to transcend the painted additions. So what’s the point of them? I don’t know. Is that what Ligon is trying to convey? I don’t know. And is all that obvious to someone who might not know who Malcolm X was? Again, I don’t know.

Perhaps I just don’t like things that are ambiguous. Perhaps I should just be glad that I can ask so many questions about the things I have seen and have some small knowledge of. But if we’re serious about increasing access to art, about ensuring that works that have the ability to move people and tell their stories are inclusive, we need to look at how we talk about them. I have the feeling that we have a while to go yet.

The Glenn Ligon exhibition runs at Nottingham Contemporary until 14 June. Go along and let us know what you think.