Administrator's note: Earlier this week a young artist sent me some images of recent work and asked if I would critique them. My reply was not brief as I spent some time viewing the images and considering my thoughts about them. I share it here because it does provoke an interesting possibility for further discussion about those old puzzles of "originality" and "derivative work."
Without revealing too much about the artist or the nature of the work, I can safely tell you that the artwork critiqued is text-based. More to the point, text is both "subject matter" and/or "content." Still, to be discrete I have substituted certain words within brackets (like [words]) and eliminated two short phrases by inserting [...] to maintain complete anonymity. Even without knowing who the artist is or specifics about the art I believe readers can access the gist of my argument. Indeed, by removing these critical thoughts and questions from the exacting particulars of a specific critique, to place them in an abstracted context, we might delve into a deeper inquiry of what it means to be "original."
"Interesting work! I'm honored that you are showing it to me and seek my critique. [...] In any case, I'm happy to share some thoughts. I believe I know you well enough to feel you can take frank criticism - so here it is:
First, I hesitate to tell you this but you should go here: [URL link to well-known artist's web-site.]
I realize there are differences between your work and [the artist, who works similarly] but one must be aware of what's occurred before, particularly with specific actions that [use similar materials]. Why? Because actions that appear similar to other artists' work 'in the canon' may either be mistakenly critiqued along similar lines or worse are termed as 'derivative.'
My text work has been judged as derivative by one DC gallery director and although I know he was off the mark it lead me to realize that we're subject to superficial perceptions by those who 'know too much.' Which is perhaps where my own view of your actions with text comes from: I might know too much, have seen too much, or otherwise project my own subjective associations on your work with 'what has come before.'
That said, I have some questions for you. I'm curious as to how you came to the decision to create [work like this]. What are your intentions? Is this, again, 'play' with the abstraction of [...] language? What are the relationships with the [foreign] language that are revealed in these actions? The placement of your [text] in the one installation seemed arbitrary to me: Was there an attempt to block one's access to the space? If so, why? What other methods could generate the same action(s)?
Finally, I think that works you placed out-of-doors will be unfortunately overlooked. Their fragility in the 'big, wide world' makes them seem somewhat trivial; passersby will miss them. Also, the [works arranged like bouquets] become 'precious' objects and I think it lessens their impact.
I'll be going to Chicago for a conference on PhD programs in art practice later this month and will miss various [...] functions. But let me know your thoughts. I hope to see you later this Fall.
All the best,