Sunday, February 8, 2009

Oh no! Not more about wall text...

Arthur Dove, Me and the Moon, 1937, wax and emulsion on canvas, 18 x 26", Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

As usual, the comments on this blog provide food for thought. Regarding my discussion of Cindy Sherman’s work in the post below, Lady Xoc writes, and it’s worth repeating:

…the hallmark of great art is generosity (the artists themselves may be self-involved sonsofbitches), but the work has to give something, make a vital connection with the souls of others….

And from Brian:

I disagree with your assessment of [museum] wall text. I enjoy making art, talking about art, and reading about art. Wall text is like bonus material on a DVD: while I can watch the movie without it, the behind-the-scenes footage adds to my experience! Of course a work should have the ability to stand on its own, but anything that can tell me what the artist is inspired by, thinking about, or interested in can only add to the conversation. Your statement that the "artist's intention holds little interest for me" is disappointing!

When a pianist is about to sit down and play Clair de Lune in concert, someone with a microphone doesn’t first come out on the stage and explain that Debussy was known as an Impressionist, that this work, the translation for which is “Moonlight,” may have been based on a poem of the same name by Paul Verlaine, and that the arpeggios were meant to convey the “impression” of moonbeams illuminating a garden.

Although Debussy’s intention was to suggest moonlight, what if you, the listener, are inclined to think of waves of water, or silk rippling in the wind, or the music evokes an emotion or sensation you feel inside your body, or reminds you of a dream? Are these responses not valid? And would you be more or less likely to think of other ways of interpreting the music, once you’ve been told what it’s supposed to be about?

Also, why do we want to hear this piece again and again? Is it because Debussy was important in providing a link between romanticism and modern music, and the composer happened to be successful in his intention of making music that sounds like moonlight—or because it’s an exceptionally beautiful and expressive piece?

With music, any information about the artist and his/her intention is not an element in the performance but is available—or not—in the program; there’s no assumption that it’s essential to the enjoyment of the music. Why should visual art be any different? When placed on the same plane as the art itself, explanatory text assumes authority, becomes part of the experience, and narrows the lens through which it will be viewed.


sfmike said...

Thanks for this. Unfortunately, our (very good) symphony conductor in San Francisco, Michael Tilson Thomas, has taken it upon himself to become the village explainer with microphone in hand way too often before launching the orchestra into a piece of music. It's become seriously annoying.

I have an old painter friend who always wears earplugs when he visits museums so he doesn't have to listen to docents "explaining" the art, which makes him very irritated.

Tim McFarlane said...

"...narrows the lens through which it will be viewed."

That's it in a nutshell.

I've attended my share of museum shows and it can be a serious challenge to push what I have read in wall text to the back of my mind while experiencing an exhibit. For that reason alone, I've taken to ignoring most wall text. I'll go through, see the works and will then find whatever information there is written about the show to read later.

Wall text can be informative for everyone, artist or not, but it can be too much of a crutch, directing the experience instead of enhancing it. The difference can be comparable to that between a big summer blockbuster, where everyone can break down the 'chapters', know the characters and ending well before the fact, and an indie film that might take you on a real journey and reveal itself a bit at a time.

Nancy said...

I think that to look at art without any written information requires a certain amount of daring. A kind of bravery that allows an experience even if it's described as nothing.
Afterwards read away.

Anonymous said...

although i rarely read wall texts i still support them. one problem with the art world is accessibility and anything that makes it easier to understand and enjoy it is positive. for most people outside of major global art centers, looking at contemporary art is like reading shakespeare, somewhat incomprehensible unless there is some minimal translation and explaining. if you don't like wall texts then don't read them. they are usually presented tastefully and don't really impede the art experience. and if they are imposing themselves on your consciousness i would suggest meditation or some form of mind discipline. the world is full of potentially unpleasant distractions and wall text seems relatively minor.

remember museums are also for young people and the general public and sometimes a wall text can really bring an otherwise unremarkable aspect to life. i remember reading about an artist who uses house paint to symbolize the decorative aspect inherant in paintings. how would one know that without reading the wall text? i'm not sophisticated enough to guess these things.

i like to think most people realize these days that the artists intention is just one aspect of a work. as is the curators intention. so a wall text can enhance an experience rather than create some sort of box that the art has to fit into. Sometimes when you really like something you want to know more about it but most people are slightly lazy and a wall text is sure easier than flipping through a program or listening to a recording, especially if you are trying to keep an eye on your children at the same time etc.

having gone on like this, thanks for your blog and the feeling of having a conversation!

Michaela said...

I couldn't agree more with your comments on wall posts and explaining art. The fact that most art really isn't experienced anymore but needs an intellectual justification and a historical context only points to how lacking the work is. Ahh Cindy Sherman...and Dumas too. I guess it pays.

deb said...

I think you have a valid point, and I think any art that cannot move me without intellectual justification isn't worth my time, my time is in short supply. I make very conceptual work, but I hope an audience doesn't need the statement to experience it, I say again, I think authorship and intent have to be left behind at the studio door, when work gets to the gallery I want to know what the viewer finds without my help....

Anonymous said...

Rob Storr gave an excellent talk at the Clark back in November about wall text and essentially it being (the froth of Art Historians who should be focusing on other things.) His proposal is that it is preferable to have literature available; the viewer can chose to pick it up or not, and can read it when she/he chooses.
xoxo AP

radioisfree said...

i don't mind wall text in museums/galleries because i have the choice to read or not. as for docents - i can usually tune them out, but for the louder ones, earplugs would be a good idea. concerts are different from museums in that we don't typically go to them for education (specifically) - only in that they enhance one's general knowledge/education/experience by exposure and content.

radioisfree said...

glad you posted the arthur dove work. he's someone you never hear about nor see too much's like his contributions aren't significant enough to rate more attention. i like him in the same way that i like albert pinkham ryder and other "elemental" artists - for whom form, abstraction, and symbols become pastiched dark walls of psychological import. excellent.

cat said...

be entertained