Sunday 1 October 2023

EDITORIAL | Untitled Artwork: This Enigma!

In many contemporary museums and galleries, you will encounter artworks with the peculiar name "Untitled" next to a technical description that precisely informs you about the materials that constitute the artwork, its dimensions, and the date it was created. This phenomenon is global, although not as common as in Greece, where in the last 10 years it has become a plague. In our country, there are artists who produce exclusively untitled works as their profession. This also occurs elsewhere, but it is simply considered an extreme choice of a minority of artists rather than a recipe for success that pseudo-pioneers of the arts encourage young artists to follow!

Common sense suggests that this practice is used when the artist who created the work chooses not to title it, an action that is respectable within the framework of artistic freedom, but unfortunate both for the fate of the work itself and the artist's potential to be influential, to convey direction, and to receive acceptance.

If we are captivated by an artwork to the extent that we seek its title next to the painting, only to be met with the artist's refusal to provide one, we might feel that the artwork lacks a clear message or that the artist is indifferent to sharing their thoughts with us, even though they seek attention and perhaps our contribution through the work. 

As an art enthusiast and someone who works in the art field, I will perceive an artwork the same way whether it has a title or not. A title can emphatically declare the artist's path with the work or provide us with food for thought in a broader context. It becomes a reference point for the thoughts that will arise or for the artist's ideas and perspective that we might admire. The absence of a title, especially in certain forms of art that have little or no reference to... anything, demands something that no human is capable of doing, whether admitted or more often not: no one can relate, develop thoughts, or be influenced by something characterized by vagueness and indeterminacy.

Often, departing from exhibitions in museums and art spaces, in my subsequent encounters, I will want to describe one or two works that left a lasting impression on me. I never recall mentioning the "Untitled" of so-and-so! I remember resorting to a verbal description of the form of the work, which made me feel that I was betraying it, as the recommendation ended up with someone seeing an exhibition and noticing a work that "ruffled" their first impression of it. I remember refraining from discussing amazing non-representational works simply because it doesn't feel right to describe a work that "spoke to me" as "that greenish cloud on a black background with three red dots," even if I found my own inexpressible truth in it.

Furthermore, this particular practice is often, although not always, accompanied by a broader ideological "package," forming what is known worldwide as "non-commercial art" in Greece, implying that it holds the reins of innovation against any artwork understood, interested in it, and/or able to be purchased by the Greek art-loving public. The result is that we see non-representational, abstract expressionist works with descriptions like "Untitled, acrylic on canvas, dimensions 100 x 150 cm." If we add to this tactic the habit of many younger Greek artists not producing series of works, which could at least offer a reference point for unity through the series title (since "series are for 'commercial' artists"), not writing artistic statements as accompaniments to their works (since "their job is not to express themselves through words"), and not including any conceptual text with their works (since "the work is what you understand"), we realize that, contrary to what the artist hopes to achieve, both the general public and informed art enthusiasts will generally simply ignore it.

Do not consider the exception, or the individual work. Frankly, I wonder and ask even those artists who systematically refrain from giving titles to their works:

"You have just painted the 11th untitled work of an imageless series that you don't name, which is not accompanied by any kind of statement/conceptual framework. Years and times will pass, and a museum will acquire for its permanent collection your famous work 'Untitled, acrylic on canvas, dimensions 100 x 150 centimetres, 2017.' Meanwhile, as you progress significantly, many art enthusiasts will have acquired your works. Among them will be other published and renowned pieces of yours: for example, we could mention 'Untitled, acrylic on canvas, dimensions 50 x 70 centimetres, 2019,' as well as 'Untitled, acrylic on canvas, dimensions 120 x 180 centimetres, 2012.' And, of course, the unforgettable 'Untitled, acrylic on canvas, dimensions 40 x 60 centimetres, 2016,' with which you participated in the Art Fair of Paris. Your works, of course, will not belong to a series, as you are a 'quality and not commercial artist,' and they will not be accompanied by any kind of statement, as your job is 'to paint, not to write.' Naturally, now that you have become famous, you don't need to be concerned about all of this. You unquestionably belong to the avant-garde. Well-known Art Theorists will take it upon themselves to write about your works, saying 'whatever the viewer understands' because these works show 'what the viewer comprehends'...

Personally, I consider the choice of artists not to systematically provide any information about their works, not even a title, an uninformed, thoughtless, reactive, immature, and highly damaging stance, primarily for themselves and secondarily for the relationship of art with Greek society. The gap deepens with anyone who truly cares about the arts. Those who treat works of art as a sport for a wealthy, frivolous elite engaged in indifferent, expensive decorative objects are rewarded in the eyes of society.

Substantive works of art, representational or not, abstract or expressionistic, captured with contemporary or classical means, serve as a starting point for the artist's thoughts, knowledge, and emotions. They are conveyors of messages, occasionally declarations, and often bring us face to face with thoughts and visual perspectives we do not wish to see. Visual artists, with their works, 'give voice to those who want to speak but lack a mouth,' as written by an American author. However, the work itself needs to be associated with a clear standpoint, a visual angle, a play of logic and imagination, something minimal to hold onto. The starting point of one thought doesn't hinder another: without it, art is colours and shapes on surfaces and other objects without reason for existence. It's prematurely born babies that died at birth, incomplete sentences, an incomplete symbol that remains a blank letter.

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