This month the Alfond Inn added a few new pieces of art to its walls. The Winter Park hotel owned by Rollins College displays dozens of pieces from the ever-growing collection of contemporary art donated to the college's Cornell Museum of Fine Art by alums Barbara and Ted Alfond, and among the newly installed crop is a work by Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, "Be Afraid of the Enormity of the Possible."
Jaar is known for overtly political works, often multi-room installations incorporating photography or video, but this piece is pure text, consisting simply of the all-caps imperative "BE AFRAID OF THE ENORMITY OF THE POSSIBLE" in warm red, orange and yellow neon. Jaar has said, "I strongly believe in the power of a single idea, so the most difficult thing for me is to arrive at the essence of what you want to say," and with "Enormity," clearly he has distilled his thinking down to a crystalline point. The question is, does he communicate that point?
CFAM takes its mission as a teaching institution very seriously, considering its exhibitions a way to educate "through and with art." Befitting its role as part of that institution, the Alfond Collection has acquired a great many text-based works, including neon pieces by Tracey Emin and Joseph Kosuth; CFAM's description of the collection affirms that its "curatorial narrative revolves around notions of language, literacy and communication."
But it's easy for text art's gnomic aphorisms to be misinterpreted, especially as social media feeds us an unending stream of pithy "inspirational" quotes.
Jaar's "Enormity" is taken from the writings of Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran. Versions of this particular phrase pop up on countless platforms with a "live your best life" slant, exhorting followers to live up to their full potential, to conquer fear. More often quoted in these #totd arenas in its original form, "We are afraid of the enormity of the possible," it seems to be taken as a command to "dream big!"
But CFAM curator Amy Galpin, deeply familiar with Jaar's body of work, sees the piece as "unapologetically political." With apologies to that hashtag-happy crowd, in Jaar's hands, "the enormity of the possible" is more likely to refer to terrible acts of political violence than ann edict to lean in at work.
Like so many pieces of text art it presents an infinitely elastic phrase, which is either its downfall or its strength. From Jenny Holzer forward, conceptual artists who work with text are playing with the preconceptions of a populace conditioned to respond to designer names, logos and ad slogans – but when text art escapes the academy and ventures out into the very environment it purports to critique, it's in especial danger of being misunderstood. (At the Alfond Inn, for example, which does a brisk wedding trade, brides are especially fond of posing under Emin's neon piece, "Everything for Love." It makes for a sweet Instagram, but Emin's art is known for being confrontational, graphic, sometimes heart-rending; her art lays bare her life, which as she presents it ranges from bittersweet to shockingly messy. It's almost as if these brides were posing under an Amy Winehouse lyric.)
In a scathing essay last year on ArtSlant, critic Darren Jones excoriated dozens of works of text art as "derivative garbage that mutilates the connection between intellect and language, and rewards neon-sniffing expendables for their literary atrocities." And in fact Jaar's "Enormity" was included in a list of "Art Basel Miami Beach's most Instagrammable art" (because that's a thing). Casual consumers of art, those outside academia and the art world, seem to interact with art chiefly via selfies these days, and often those consumers lack any context in which to interpret what they see.
"I've had so many profound, emotional experiences viewing [Alfredo Jaar's] work," Galpin says. She describes "Geography = War," in which portraits of people are projected into oil drum barrels, and "Shadows," a multi-room installation about the documentation of violence in Esteli, Nicaragua: "The final room is the outlined form of two sisters who mourn the sudden death of their father, their profiles becoming brighter and brighter – the viewer's eyes have an experience like looking into the sun," she says. "'Be Afraid of the Enormity of the Possible' shares with these works the element of powerful and strong light."
So does Jaar's glowing message use light to describe man's darkest capabilities, or to dispel them?
As Jones wrote, "It is deceptively simple to make art from words but exceptionally difficult to render their subtleties effectively." Clearly, text-based art is all about what you read into it.