Urban Lake: a slight departure

April 30, 2010

I’ve been putting (throwing?) the Preface together for the last few days, and it stuck me as strange that we have mostly untitled works of art. In fact, most every photo that was submitted this year was title-less. And that seems so incorrect.

What is the purpose of a title? I suppose it has several. One being to prepare the viewer/reader/listener for what they are about to experience. Okay, so titles can be informational. A good title can entice people into looking up your work or attending your event, so titles can be attention-grabbing. But for a photograph or a single piece of art, I think titles are different. They could arguably be less important. A poem or a story requires reader commitment, and titles help make the reader want to take that commitment. They help your work be remembered (as companionablesnuffles pointed out recently) and serve as a defining characteristic. In art, this is less the case. The eye does not usually see a title first, but the work itself. When talking about a piece of art, people usually go to the what of the thing before the who of the thing.

So why is it bad to not title art?

There were a few times during the art editing Preface meeting that we were debating artistic pieces and choices, saying “If only we could ask the artist why this is this way!” or “If only we could ask the artist what they were trying to accomplish!” Because without knowing those things, sometimes a piece of art just looks like an accident or a mistake in technique. And if I don’t have something to give me more information about what I am seeing, I can feel satisfied continuing to assume that this is an accident and mistake. That’s why artist statements are important. And that’s why titles are important.

A title for a piece of art should help the viewer understand something about the art. What are you trying to convey? Emotion? Are you trying to simply show someone something you’ve observed? Patterns, maybe? What? What resonates with you, the artist, about this picture or sculpture? Are you just showing off your skills? What do you want me to see or know or understand or explore? If you don’t know, then why the fuck should I care about this? If you don’t, then I shouldn’t.

A title is a bit of a conversation with the viewer. It doesn’t have to be obvious. It can be interprutive. But art is a purposeful thing. So if you leave a piece Untitled, make sure that you want to convey everything that word means to the viewer. To me it means accidental or confused or uncertain or devalued or nonchalant. I judge your work with that word in mind. If you have a photo of a puddle reflecting a building, and you took it because you thought it looked nice or interesting, but you don’t think it has a specific message, don’t be afraid to title it “Urban Lake” or “Puddle” and let me know that’s what you had in mind. If I see something more, I’ll ascribe it something more. If it affects me majorly, I’ll still be affected. But I want to know what you thought or saw. I want to know a little about your why.


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