Captions and Backstories

Scott Lyall and I have been having some discussions about the concept of “backstory,” which appeared on this blog about nine months ago. Recently he brought up the topic of captions, which allows an important distinction to be made. A caption, in my view, takes the viewer away from art and into the world, establishing all kinds of links between a work and the life around it. It has an activist, extravert quality. The best examples might be those of Terry Atkinson. A backstory, on the other hand, is a retrospective attempt to find and place the origin of the work. Since color field painting and Fontana, the origin of a work is the work. If an artist explains their thought processes, or relates the encounters and experiences that stimulated the work, then they are providing a backstory. Since origins are always lost, the work then retains a connection with an older, metaphysical notion of art. The invocation of a lost origin is perhaps the characteristic of a metaphysical orientation in art, and that’s why color field painting wanted to be its own origin, not refer to it. My suggestion is that in this case objects in a gallery are more than superfluous, they actually hamper the work. Backstories are a sign of insufficient literariness in an artist’s practice, because the possible work they point toward can be nothing other than a poem. But further, I have no trouble seeing how the artists who use a backstory try to anticipate their critics; this is where it meets the anxiety discussed in an earlier post.

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