David Lister: Artists shouldn't have to explain themselves

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In the midst of the Venice Biennale opening celebrations, an odd exchange took place. Steve McQueen, Britain's representative, was giving a press conference about his artwork, a short film depicting the setting of the Biennale after the glamorous art world had left.

A reporter from a Sunday newspaper asked whether the two dogs in the film were a factual part of the scenario or fictional. In other words, were they there when he was filming or did he have them specially brought in? (Of such things are cultural discussions made.)

McQueen, became a little irritated saying he was not a documentary-maker. The journalist became equally irritated, saying it was only reasonable that his question be answered. An American reporter then had a go at McQueen asking what the deeper significance of the dogs was, and McQueen became even more angry.

I feel a little uneasy about the whole affair. Not because I care overmuch about the dogs, but because I dislike the vogue for artists explaining their work. They might get heated as McQueen does, or they might do something far, far worse; they might answer the questions and explain the work. And that is always a pity, for as soon as an artist explains a work, it immediately limits it.

There are numerous examples. One that has always stuck in my mind was a television interview with the playwright Arthur Miller a few years ago. Miller was asked whether the woman in one scene of the play being discussed was sad or angry. "Angry" replied Miller. And I groaned. For from that moment on she could never again be played as sad.

I might be thrown out of the journalists' union for saying this – but artists should not give press conferences. They should not get into debates with journalists about what their work may or may not mean. Art and journalism occupy different universes. Ambiguity is often at the core of great art; ambiguity is anathema to journalism. Yet more and more creators of art, film-makers (in the obligatory post-screening press conferences at film festivals), and now painters, conceptualists and video artists feel obliged to act like a Premier League football manager and give an official post-match briefing to explain the performance.

It limits the work, and it limits the experience for the viewer, both present-day viewers and viewers in the future. It's perfectly fair for a curator to give his or her views on an artwork. One can learn from it but, crucially, one can disagree and make up one's own mind. But how can one disagree with the person who made the work? Once they have spoken, that's the end of the story.

It's a great boon for several centuries of literary criticism that Shakespeare never gave a press conference. It doesn't stop me from having bad dreams of that happening. "I'm asking you a simple question, Mr Shakespeare. Why did Hamlet hesitate? Surely that's not a lot to ask."

The one good thing that might come of Steve McQueen's tangles with the press is that artists might keep their own counsel in the future. The day after McQueen gave his press conference, there was a launch of another exhibition at the Venice Biennale by the 80-year-old American pop artist John Wesley. He was seated, looking a little uncomfortable, at a table to give a press conference alongside the curator of the exhibition. The curator spoke at length and then turned to Wesley: "Jack, is there anything you want to say about your exhibition?" "No," replied Wesley.

That's how I like my artists.

A welcome change of tune

Ah, a small victory for the audience. Two weeks ago I highlighted the chaos that followed the Beyoncé, right, concert at the O2 in London. With the Jubilee Line closed – as it so often is at weekends – audience members had huge difficulty getting home. The O2, I said, had a responsibility to care about their customers after concerts and other events had finished. Transport for London (TfL) also had a duty to transport the thousands of people attending a major arts event.

I now hear from the O2 that it was concerned about my comments, and will today launch a pre-bookable riverboat shuttle service to link the arena with Canary Wharf and the Docklands Light Railway. TfL has also agreed to pay for alternative transport with extra buses to several locations. It is certainly a gesture in the right direction.

It's good to know that arts venues are beginning to realise that the evening does not end for audiences when the show is over. It ends when those audiences are safely back home.

Americans are such bad losers

It was a night of British triumphs at the Tony Awards on Broadway this week with Alan Ayckbourn and Billy Elliot among the winners. But what appalling losers the Americans are, even before they have lost.

I was genuinely shocked to read about an email from the producers of Reasons to be Pretty, by the American playwright Neil LaBute, to the judges, which appealed for some good ol' Uncle Sam patriotism. "We believe passionately in this distinctly American work," it declared. "Many of you have told us that you share that belief."

Perhaps it's naïve of me to believe that theatre should be above that sort of thing, that the play should be produced, put out there, and any awards that might come considered a bonus. It seems rather lacking in integrity to try to twist the judges' arms with an unsubtle reminder to be patriotic.

Which is odd, as integrity is an issue which that fine playwright Neil LaBute explores in his plays. I trust that he will publicly dissociate himself from his producers' email.

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