The Art of the Exegesis

At the end of the 18th century, Nazarene painter Eberhard Wachter rejected a position on the staff of the Stuttgart academy, noting that ‘there is too much misery in art already; I do not want to increase it.’ Wachter uttered his sullen epigram on art education well before the development of postgraduate programmes in studio art, but the weariness of his tone would have only increased if he had read the raft of ‘written components’ – usually in the form of an exegesis – that are now mandatory in art school submissions. Examiners do their best to maintain fresh eyes in front of works that groan under pointless descriptions of dull making processes, overblown and unconvincing attempts by artists to write their own work in an art historical tradition, or perhaps worst of all, interesting practices (de)formed into ‘research questions’ that the works are then supposed to answer. Duchamp did his best to dissuade such thinking, believing that ‘there is no solution, because there is no problem.’ Now the need to find problems to satisfy a demand for academic rigour seems to be the problem.

These crimes of writing committed in art schools are not the fault of artists, who know all too well that a written exegesis usually hinders great work. Students often evade supervision of these research reports – perhaps hoping that the requirement might slip away unnoticed. Not because they can’t write: visual artists can be formally gifted and inventive writers. But contemporary artists are reflexive critics of form in the most expanded sense, often unhappy with any institutional dictation of form or genre from above. As Dieter Lesage has argued, to require an artist to adopt a particular form of writing is precisely to fail to recognise their status as an artist….

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