By Rob McCarthy
Harbeer Sandhu is a smart guy, but he knows that you don’t have to be a smart guy to appreciate art. In fact, if you even enjoy art, you are miles ahead of the average neanderthals amongst us.
Herb, as he is affectionately known amongst his colleagues and friends, is more than passionate about art, he is the writer of the blog Texphrastic, which aims to “give long-form criticism and independent ekphrastic reponses” to art installations, artists, and particular pieces.
Although he has his MFA in creative writing, he has little to no formal education in visual arts, art history, or art criticism. We had the pleasure of speaking with him, and getting to know more about him, art, and Texphrastic.
Why is this blog so special?
I write it.
Aren’t there a million other blogs that do the same thing too?
No. Zero, actually. (There are other good art blogs, all with their own strengths and interests, but mine, I would say, is specific to my voice and my interests, so it is singular in at least those respects.)
What specifically do you hope to do that no one else does?
I am neither an academic art historian nor a journalist reporting on art events, covering who was seen on the scene for the society pages, or regurgitating press releases and artist statements. I contextualize contemporary art by relating what I see to literature, film, current events, sociological concerns, and other art. I do this with a close attention to language.
Another thing I try to do is to make contemporary art accessible to the layperson. There are definitely others doing that, too, so I don’t claim any exclusivity on that tip — but expressing complex ideas in simple language is of paramount concern to me as a writer.
Without having a who’s who on the arts, do you feel that people can still appreciate the techniques, the history, the theory, and the approach to art?
Absolutely yes, but it requires work on the audience’s part. Ask a foreign visitor to watch a game of American football and see how much they get from it. Art (in all media) is, above all, a conversation, that is sung, so, just like you can enjoy music in languages you don’t understand, there are many other levels at which it may be appreciated if you speak the language. (And this is a sloppy metaphor, because things are expressed graphically and not verbally for a reason, but visual art is nonetheless a “conversation” that employs “languages.”)
How do you approach a new style or artist without having been versed in the work that may have influenced that art? Does that hinder your ability to relate to it or to write about it?
I look at it, I think about it, and then I ask myself if it’s worth thinking about more. If I decide it is (based entirely on my own subjective viewpoint) then I spend some time with it. Not knowing too much about it does not necessarily hinder my ability to relate to works, because can I learn more if I feel so inclined, or I can go with an impressionistic, ekphrastic approach. It all starts, however, with looking closely at the work and spending some time with it, then asking questions.
Apart from Houston, you have spent significant time living in both New York and San Francisco. How did those environments shape your outlook on both art and literature?
I’ve heard it put this way (though I would say it’s dated, because SF is over): In SF, people have talent but no ambition; in LA, people have ambition but no talent; and in New York, people have both ambition and talent. Where Houston fits in to that, I’ll let you decide.
That said, in Houston, the conversation among art professionals is that we need more arts funding to make real our claim to be a cultural capital/destination. That’s all they ever want to talk about — funding (most of which goes to non-profit administrators, anyway). While I agree that funding is crucial, and the arts do have social benefits so they are worthy of public funding, I think another crucial ingredient that never gets mentioned is a good audience.
In New York I saw a very educated, discriminating, diverse and engaged audience. (Diverse among professions, in particular — in Houston the art audience seems to be composed almost exclusively of other artists.) I learned a lot from those people, and being around smart people talking about cool things made me want to educate myself, more, too.
In both SF and Houston, I feel like audience expect much less, and consequently, artists feel justified in tempering their own ambitions, and that really holds the culture back.
Explain the portmanteau of “Texphrastic” to our readers.
Ekphrasis (or ekphrastic writing) is an Aristotelian term describing writing which is done in concert with visual art. This is what I aim to do in my art criticism — to write stand-alone works of literary quality which use visual art as a point of departure for my own impressionistic creative writing. My blog is focused on Texas art, so I combined the words “Texas” and “ekphrastic” to make TEXPHRASTIC. (I probably should have chosen an easier to spell URL, but now I’m stuck with it.)
What makes your website different from typical art journalism? Why avoid the norm?
As I said above, typical art journalism usually does one of three things: 1) paraphrases the curatorial statement or the artist’s statement; 2) describes the work in very literal terms with some discussion of materials and process and its place in art history; or 3) presents a bunch of photos of the opening with captions describing who’s who.
In the first case, that style of art writing does not challenge or question or otherwise engage the press release/curatorial statement/artist’s statement. In other words, it adds nothing to the discussion or audiences’ understanding of the work. In the second case, that’s kind of what art historians do, and it’s somewhat meaningless to the layperson. And the third case, that’s just vapid, meaningless bullshit that nobody should care about, and if they do care about that, then I hope they stub a toe like right now, maybe even bust a shin on their coffee table.
In any case, there are enough people already doing all those things, and I bring a unique talent to the table (that of my freewheeling associations — bringing literature, film, music, etc — into the discussion), so I would be doing myself and my potential readers a disservice to forego doing something unique in favor of doing that which others are already doing. If readers want “typical art journalism,” they have places they can go for that.
What has inspired you down this Texphrastic path?
At the risk of sounding pretentious, I’m going to answer this with a quote from Dorothy Parker’s Paris Review interview:
Interviewer: What, then, would you say is the source of most of your work?
Parker: Need of money, dear.
The first piece I wrote that might be called “art criticism” was a piece I wrote for CITE magazine about Dean Ruck and Dan Havel’s piece in the Contemporary Art Museum of Houston’s “No Zoning” show. After that, I wrote a few more articles for various publications about local art that struck a chord with me, and when I found out there was a grant available for people writing about visual art, I figured I should apply because I do something unique which would have a good chance of winning the grant.
Inspiration has nothing to do with it; it comes from having a need to eat and pay my bills. It’s a job, though oftentimes I can’t tell the difference between work and play.
What do you see yourself doing with it in the future? What were the goals for the blog out of the gate, and have those changed at all?
I see myself continuing to do it indefinitely, although I think the blog format is not really well-suited for what I do. I put too much research into my blog posts (I read three whole books for one post, and I’m working on another one that’s incorporating at least five books) which makes it hard to hard to update even on a weekly basis, and they’re too long for online reading, I think, too. I want to move in to writing exhibition catalog pieces and long-form magazine articles.
Why shouldn’t art be propaganda?
I think it is. All of it — including all the billboards we’re forced to look at. Look at those before-and-after liposuction billboards. Look at TV commercials: Super Bowl commercials are some of the best art and some of the best propaganda, but they’re not inducing people to do or contemplate anything worthwhile.
I think you’re asking me about “political art,” though, and about that I’ll say this: I think art that is emotionally manipulative, simplistic in terms of “good vs evil” (or other dualistic constructs), or privileges political content over nuance, subtlety, complexity, and craft is boring, at best, and dangerous, at its worst. I also think that “commercial art” (like billboards and television ads) is destroying our bodies, our psyches, and our ability to live on this planet. I would like to see more ambitious and successful art (in all media) that effectively pushes people to question many of the things we accept as a given under capitalism (competition > cooperation, for example), and maybe even helps organize communities, as in the “social practices” form of art.
Why should anyone care about art in this day and age? Are not our instagram feeds and graphic tee’s enough to convey to people that we are still “artsy?” Is art dead?
I’m going to answer that with an exchange from A.R. Ammons’s Paris Review interview:
Interviewer: Do you think poetry has any future?
Ammons: It has as much future as past — very little.
Iterviewer: Could you elaborate on that?
Ammons: Poetry is everlasting. It is not going away. But it has never occupied a sizable portion of the world’s business and probably never will.
That said, there are ideas and emotions and aspects of human life that cannot be captured or expressed on instagram or t-shirts. (That’s why bumper stickers were invented.)