There was a time in the 70s, when I was doing graduate work in education (as in how to teach our progeny), that there was prevalent a tremendous bias AGAINST any kind of labeling. As an example, when I started teaching, special education students were referred to as "Mentally Retarded" and that was broken down into two categories, "Educable M.R." and "Trainable M.R." That was an improvement, of course, over the nineteenth century when they actually used, as clinical terms, the labels idiot, moron, and imbecile. Within a few years after I started teaching, the whole area of special education came to prefer "Occupational Education." Then came the term "challenged." Today the word "intervention" and "remediation" get used a lot. It's no wonder parents are intimidated by a school environment, just when they get a handle on the jargon, someone takes offense at its implication and the whole industry goes scampering to come up with a new term which has as its major advantage the fact that it's NOT so well understood. Perhaps for the same reason, artists often hate labels too. In fact, the only people who seem to LIKE labels are people like me that take it upon themselves to WRITE about art (or anything else). Labels give us something to call things. They are a form of shorthand, and like it or not, in one form or another, they're indispensable.

Labeling in art seems to be thought of as MOST reprehensible when it's used to label the artists themselves, rather than their output. He's a realist. She's an abstractionist. Dali was a Surrealist. That's all well and good and fairly innocuous. It's when we begin to probe artists a little deeper that eyebrows, indeed, HACKLES get raised. He's a macho abstractionist, or she's a feminist Impressionist (whatever that might be). And the deeper that probing goes, the thinner and slipperier the ice we writers have to try and stand up on. When we begin to dig into the painter's psyche, his IQ, his ethnicity, her upbringing, socioeconomic status, politics, religion, or sexuality, man, it's time to make sure we lock our doors at night.

Yet, every one of these areas are, to varying degrees, valid territory to explore as writers and readers in trying to come to grips with an artist's work. Let's face it, every one of these areas go into making the artist who he or she IS. Now, having said that, not ALL of them are relevant to ALL artists. Take Michelangelo for instance. He was a genius visually, cold, hard as nails, Italian, raised in a motherless, all-male home, shunted off as an apprentice before he was twelve, straight from a lower middle-class environment into the humanist lap of de Medici luxury. He cared not a twit for politics, he was deeply religious, with strong homosexual tendencies (if not what we would term openly gay). Every single one of those factors played a part in the nature of his work. If we were, today, labeling Michelangelo, we would call him a lonely, highly intelligent, Italian, middle-class, apolitical, Humanistic, deeply religious, gay sculptor. It's frightening, but in one short burst of carefully chosen adjectives, we gain a DEEP understanding of who Michelangelo was as an artist.