Disclosure as an Art Form (2)

May 14, 2011

Okay, so.  In the (academic/conservative) US poetry world in the 1950s and 1960s there was a trend called Confessional poetry.  These were largely poems written by highly educated wealthy white people in Boston and New York who used their poems as vehicles in which to discuss their drinking problems, suicidality, and other mental health issues in a mix of plain and highly-wrought verbiage.  Exemplars of this kind of stuff would be Robert Lowell or Anne Sexton.  Sylvia Plath is probably the most famous person associated with this stuff but her stuff was too sophisticated and complex to really fit and Plath is sort of a unique case.

Anyway.  This stuff got washed away in the tide of poetic history by a new wave of academics espousing experimental or lyric poetry and it was more of a trend than a movement but I’m bringing it up here in that those poems have a double appeal: you get to read a (plausibly) good poem and you get inside dirt at the same time.  That kind of poetry is not my deal at all and I’m not sure if it’s still even taught in more conservative colleges as “craft” but I’ve been thinking about it because I’ve been making artwork about mental illness and that has come to mean making artwork about my mental illnesses.  So I’m in territory where I’m sharing information that doesn’t bother me but could make the viewer uncomfortable and/or enticed in a lurid way.

And I’m not sure whether this is a bad thing or not.  Right now one strand of work consists of the Rorschach butterflies posted here alternating with flatbed scans of my own medical records that look like this:

What I’m aiming at is not “let’s share my dark secrets” but showing via the subjectivity of the butterflies that the hard fact of the records is, in fact, entirely subjective too, which trust me I’ve spent time with the people generating these records and they’re filling out forms that don’t fit me or any other person as a means to an administrative end.  They’re full of information but they’re essentially devoid of meaning.

The problem, though, is that they look like stuff you’re not supposed to share.  US Poetry confessionalism and the contemporary trend in memoirs aside there’s still a taboo about what’s now dubbed oversharing, but the question with that is where does the border of oversharing fall and is it flexible from person to person and time to time and if it does happen, what does that entail?  Notice that the example above is a form, and gives you a lot more information about mental health assessment procedures than it does about me.  Other images are more personal and list dire diagnoses that are mostly inaccurate and often misspelled, but they are local things, my records, and by virtue of that they push against the danger of the overshare.

But unearthing certain unpleasant things about US mental health care is exactly what I want to do, and part of that unearthing means actual evidence, documentary evidence, something real that exists in the world that you don’t ordinarily see unless you happen to inhabit this part of our culture.  Mental illness is still something that doesn’t find its way onto gallery walls (in open form) and I find that absence curious in an era where art is information and vice versa.  Too Much Information?  Maybe.  But as with the diagnoses in the previous post (there are nine I’ve been labeled with in the last fifteen years so I made nine text pieces) I need to start somewhere in dealing with the subject and the very very last thing I would ever want to do is exploit anyone else’s suffering in the service of making art.   So for now the question is: do I just work with what I have, and hope the ideas raised by the work override any surface detail?  Or do I try to do this and keep a politely distant view?

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2 Responses to “Disclosure as an Art Form (2)”


  1. I’m going to toss aside my behavioral psychology hat and instead focus on meaning–intended or otherwise.

    I wouldn’t say the forms are devoid of meaning. I think they’re full of meaning that’s not germane to your treatment or understanding of the visit. Besides it’s administrative function, forms like these are designed to push the mushy blob that is brain science a tiny bit away from the subjective.

    Which brings me to the idea of meaning in art. As a field of production, art has been all to happy to favor the subjective interpretation. You can go to a gallery and plunk down ten grand for an abstract painting because it reminds you of your grandma, and you’ll get no argument from the gallery owner or artist that the painting is really about Malaysian sex tourism, or hear that she has an incredible two hundred dollar drawing by an artist whose investigating the concept of grandmothers in the back because, well, ten grand is ten grand, and really all art is subjective.

    My guess is that because folks like us chose to go to a place like CalArts, we believe in the possibility of pouring meaning into art in a way that others can come along and dip into it, extracting something that was intentionally put there.

    I’d rather like to think that part of your attraction to the form is that it pretends to lend a bit of qualitative understanding to the random actions fermented by the gray mass between one’s ears.

    I see the problem with using your own forms comes when I dip into the art for meaning, and too many strings are tied to a specific instance. There’s the one strategy you dismissed–using others as fodder for your work. There’s also the strategy where the artist distances his or herself from personal claims about highly personal work, which unfortunately lets the meaning become more subjective.

    I like what you posted earlier (the blue diagnoses) because it could be read either way.

    • Nicholas Says:

      But exactly what I’m flailing around about is that brain science is just as subjective as art. You can read anything into a Rorschach inkblot–that’s half the point. And personal evaluations of surface features don’t venture too far beyond that; brain science consists of practitioners with varying degrees of experience doing shot-calling and not much else. And those people have a lot more power than an art collector in terms of daily lived experience.

      And the CalArts issue is definitely there not because I’m demanding that people think about X but that, when people see my work, I want them to think about the world we live in and not about me. Which is why this work is problematic because my history (vs. my artistic choices) is the lens through which people would plausibly view the work.

      And I’d like to know more what’s under your behavioral psych hat.


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