Saturday, 12 November 2011

On Art and 'Art Exhibitions'

Every major art exhibition is always the same.

The ticket holders go in with their expensive tickets, and with their guide-books and ear-phone sets, and they look and they stare, and then they shuffle along and look and stare again.

But instead of looking and staring at the painting or other artifact, they look and stare at the typed caption 'explaining' the work of art.

And once they have looked and stared at this caption, they give the painting or other artifact a very brief glance, and they then move on to the next caption.

If you do not believe me, stand back at the next major exhibition you attend, and watch your fellow ticket-holders.

This is what they actually do.

It is almost as if the painting or other artifact is there as an aid to understanding the caption, and not the other way round.

Indeed, a visiting Martian - not versed in what is 'supposedly' happening - would observe this phenomenon, and think that the captions are the works of art really being visited.

I often stand back and watch this phenomenon happen, and I have very naughty thoughts.

I think about charging into every major art exhibition and running around, tearing down the captions, and shouting at the ticket holders: "No! Look at the bloody work of art, and form your own opinion".

And I would keep on doing this, at every major exhibition, until I was arrested by some police officer finally able to work out some plausible ground for arrest.

If charged, I would defend myself on the basis of the right to free expression.

It would only be for the public benefit, to allow people to be free at art exhibitions to actually contemplate the art exhibited.

It would be a mercy.

It would only be for their own good.


There is perhaps a more serious point to my threatened screaming criminal rampage though all the major art exhibitions of London.

(Sir, come with me. How do you account for all those exhibition captions in your bag? How many more exhibitions have you done, sir? How many?)

The serious point is this: for some reason, many people seem not to be confident about art.

Though people will readily form their own opinions about what they see on television, there is a certain discomfort when those people are presented with something they are 'supposed' to like and appreciate.

And, to my mind, this is a misconceived approach which makes me want to do something as illiberal as run through every gallery I can find ripping the captions off all the walls.

In one way, it all comes down to that most banal and preposterous of questions: what is art?

An answer to that question - and a completely inadequate answer it is - is to say that art is what is in an art exhibition, or some gallery.

Unfortunately, this inadequate answer is the one which is adopted by many people who really should know better.

They go into some place, with the twin clichés of high ceilings and blandly painted walls, to see something presented which is considered a work of art.

The work of art will of course have a explanatory caption.

Most people will spend longer looking at the caption than looking at the (supposed) work of art.

And in truth it is only being treated as a work of art just because someone has put it in an art gallery.

This how so many "modern artists" get away with such shoddy charlatanism.

We appear to have reached the ridiculous point where the most serviceable answer to what is art is: art is what is placed in an art gallery.

This cannot be right.

A new major exhibition has opened in London: this is of Leonardo da Vinci's paintings during his time in Milan.

Leonardo happens to be my favourite artist. I actually went to Krakow for my 35th birthday just to see the Lady with the Ermine.

But I cringe at the thought of going to this London exhibition.

As far as we can tell, Leonardo himself did not care for "art" and probably would have been horrified at the prospect of his work being in art galleries.

He rarely finished any painting - there are only a few complete works extant - and the ones he did finish were probably because of some demanding patron, or because the work allowed him to solve some technical problem.

Leonardo was interested in sheer observation: the desire to form a view, uncluttered by the conventions of received wisdom.

This is why, by just looking keenly at the spatial relationships of shapes and thinking things through, his notebooks are packed with speculative designs of things which seem advanced for his time, from screws to helicopters.

But it was not not because Leonardo could "see ahead". It was just because he sought to see clearly.

Leonardo would not have looked at captions.

Any one who spends longer reading a caption explaining a work of art than actually looking at the work of art has no business in an art gallery.

Any artist who puts any effort whatsoever in writing the caption, or the catalogue or sales "explanation" of their work, has no business calling themselves an artist.

Should you go to the Leonardo exhibition, or any other major exhibition, just refuse the guide-book and the ear-phones. Refuse to look at the wretched captions unless you want to know the material used and the date of composition.

Then you can enjoy art; for to form your own, personal aesthetic response can be the most wonderful feeling in the world.

And the things in this world that can trigger that wonderful response are the best answer to "what is art" - and they do not need typed captions and white-washed galleries to make them so.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.


Pedro Stephano said...

I must admit that while I often can't see what the caption suggests in the work (I prefer to form my own opinion) I feel that the caption starts a thought pollution that's hard to undo, thus almost aligning my thoughts with that of the writer (and thereby stifling any debate)

Robert Hardy-McBride said...

I fear people use the comments to have their opinions formed for them as they don't allow enough time to consider what is before them. Galleries are too often used as a place to "fit in" with an awayday ticket, somewhere to entertain the kids or a place to shelter from the rain.

Ironically the Da Vinci exhibition will be less likely to fall into the above catagories at £16 a ticket, people may actually want to gaze and consider that bit more.

A couple of years ago I was in Lille and faced with a Monet, I spent so much time studying the picture I didn't have time to see the majority of the other works, though I didn't feel I wasted my time.

Mrs Angry said...

I agree with you: it infuriates me to see people traipsing around exhibitions unable to view the pictures without some form of explanation: my habit is to whiz round, get an overview, then go back to the beginning and review what I have just seen, lingering over the works that are of particular interest. It confuses the watching gallery staff, but hey ho: not such a bad thing. It is important to remember that each picture was created as an individual piece, and exists in its own right, not as part of some pre ordered sequence.

Diana Probst said...

The short version of what I think: captions give people the confidence to look at a painting. The long version, including more of why this can be bad,

C Murray said...

Maybe the art galleries could remove
captions at openings....

I have been thinking about this issue
because we are developing a 'looking at art'
type programme for a local school, and I won't be
allowing the kids to rely on labels/captions.

When I studied Art History , our first assignment was
to sit in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, in front of one
painting and to write an essay about it , without any
Art Historical contextualisation (captions/labels) .

This is an excellent way to 'learn' to look at art.

keewa said...

I agree with you.
I only ever look at the caption to see when the painting was made and what medium was used. I couldn't give a tinker's cuss what it's meant to mean to someone else.

Aneliya said...

How tall are you?

The plaques? I should be so lucky. I'm short and don't take up a full seat on a plane. That means I see the back of people's heads at these exhibitions - if I am lucky. It is more likely to be a mass of backs.

I will probably go. What I will also do is buy the book of the show - if it doesn't require a bailout-sized payment. I'll learn more from the book of the show and get a better view of the pictures from it.

Stephen said...

I think the little card next to painting really shows the role of art in society. It used to be that the well-to-do would send their servants to the theatre to save them a seat so that they could come in after they had finished their dinner. You would find performances where the entire first half was performed to uninterested servants and the second half was performed to their drunk employers. No one was going to that for the plot and characterisation. Going to the theatre was just a thing that these people decided they would (perhaps even should) do.

In my experience art galleries tend to make good family days out and a slightly higher class of first date. I've always had a sense wandering round some of the fantastic free admission galleries in Glasgow that going to an art gallery for the pictures is a fairly niche pastime.

paolov said...

I consider art to be a form of complex communication - by which I mean the intent of the artist is largely communicated through the piece by implicit mechanisms (subtext, semiotic devices, conventions, structure, etc.) rather than through explicit mechanisms (e.g. vocabulary, pictographs).

Unfortunately, in order to unpick the meaning intended by an artist there is a requirement for context, which is where captions come in.

Of course, it depends what you want to take from a piece of art. If you want to appreciate it from a personal perspective then the captions are a distraction, if you want to understand what the piece is intended to communicate (and you're not an art expert) then the captions can fulfil a valuable role.

Rodney Breen said...

Captions can sometimes have a very useful function - especially with art before the modern period, when audiences of the time would be expected to know things most viewers would not pick on today - the symbolism of animals, fruit etc; and the stories from the Bible or the Classics. This can reveal deeper intended meaning to what looks like just a pretty picture. They can also provide insight through historical information.

On the other hand, people do like to be told what to think. I once worked for an artist who specialised in modern, expressionist works. When I was helping him to set up an exhibition, he looked at a picture called something like, "Scenario #3" which he had been trying to sell for a couple of years. "What should I call it?" he asked me. It was mainly green and brown. "Rural Scene," I suggested. He liked that. And put the price up.

drifflo said...

I have to read the captions because I always get the feeling that there's some deep meaning behind the painting which I've missed. Otherwise, with modern art at least, it's usually just some colourful blobs on a canvas. But then I speak from a not-very-well-informed-in-the-world-of-art point of view.

Robin Wilton said...

1 - I'm with you on this one;

2 - I have a treasured memory of three tourists going round the Jeu de Paume in Paris, when it housed the impressionists. The one in the middle was face down in his Michelin guide, while the others steered him by the elbows. As they passed me, I heard him read: "The lock at Bougival: this painting demonstrates Sisley's sensitivity to nature". "I don't really see the nature...", said one companion. Eyes up. "Well, ya got those trees there... I guess that's nature..". Eyes down, next entry in the guide.

greg @legalchampion said...

This blog puts into words what I was feeling in Florence last month. People don't actually look at the art. The captions are like Tripadvisor, insidiously influencing you like that bad review on a great restaurant or hotel.

Dickon Edwards said...

Very true about the way SOME gallery visitors behave, but this is rather a wide subject with many points to consider! Hard to cover them all in a blog post let alone a comment on one. So here's a quick few:

- Captions on art are as needed as your own name is on the top of this blog. Why don't you blog anonymously? Why Jack Of Kent and not David Allen Green (I've just realised I don't know the answer to this!). It's all framing and context: the work is never just the work itself.

- I don't think I've ever come away from a major, hyped temporary exhibiton with the same love for a painting as I have in permanent collections. Permanent collections really encourage the serendipity factor: you can stumble upon an amazing work. Or it can stumble upon YOU.

- With those big temporary shows, there's crowds and timed tickets and a sense of being at the mercy of others somewhat.

- Temporary shows also impose their own narratives - paintings as part of a life or movement, so one can hardly begrudge people wanting to move on to the next 'chapter' quickly. Keep moving! Another five rooms till the gift shop!

- My fave tip regarding how to 'do' galleries is Alan Bennett's. Try to think which work you'd most like to put under your coat...

Manuela said...

I agree that most captions are very often just waffle, but I detect a certain degree of snobbery in this post.

I really don't have much time for this "people who do X or Y have no business going to art galleries". They're paying the ticket just like you, so they have as much business being there as you. Out of curiosity, would you apply the same principle to books? Do people who can't appreciate all the subtleties of Dostoyevski have no business reading his work?

I also don't understand all the discussion about Leonardo not wanting to be in an art gallery. How is the London exhibition any different from the Krakow museum where you saw the Lady with the Ermine? Wasn't that also an art gallery that Leonardo would be horrified by?

I'm huge fan of your blog, but not a fan of this post, sorry.

HenstridgeSJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
C Murray said...

Imo looking at a painting is a form of confrontation.

There are so many books on art but I believe that
preparedness and knowledge in that confrontation
is secondary to the ideas that form in 'just looking'.

On the subject of art books/catalogues , however, I would
recommend manifestos!

To read someone like Kitaj attempt to wrestle into words
his huge diaspora -vision can be breathtaking.

I dislike catalogues as much as captions but some art books are
tremendous.....if written by the artist to encapsualte his/her
process: Spero, Kandinsky, Kitaj , Cennini did it !

@adurdin said...

Made me think of this, from the opening of Portal 2: "This is art. You will hear a buzzer. When you hear a buzzer, stare at the art."

Dickon Edwards said...

PS noticed your own blog comments policy:

"COMMENTS MODERATION. No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters."

Well, that is rather what captions in galleries are for too. Reference & context. Er, feel free to strip this comment from my name if you think it's better way of experiencing it... ;)

Nicole Coates said...

Yes, it's true (and frustrating in myself when I catch myself doing it) that it's bad to rely on received wisdom in any sphere. I do honestly try very hard to look at the painting before the caption.

But I'm not sure that it's true that an analytical response to a painting can't go hand-in-hand with an aesthetic response and because of that I'm not sure that captions are always bad. The Lady with the Ermine is exactly the sort of painting that I might want more context with. Why is she holding an ermine, anyway? What's with the treatment of her brows? Why are her sleeves different - is that an ermine-handling sleeve?

You might think that really I don't need to know any of these things to decide whether I love the painting, and to be honest, that's true. I do love it, and I don't know the answers - she's beautiful and serene and the ermine is a muscly wonder in itself. But there's a lot of religious art about, and while I went to quite a churchy school and can work out what is going on some of the time, I'm lost with most of the Catholic saints. Any children I may have will most likely know less than I do about these things...and that's before we even start on classical allegories.

I do abhor the audio guides because I think the way they're made and used means that the serendipity of finding your own favourite is gone, and also because they turn their listeners into shuffly, distracted obstacles. I have seen people catching up with the goings-on in their social circles with their backs turned to the pictures at big, sold-out, event exhibitions, and people stood in a circle discussing 9/11 conspiracy theories 6' away from Las Ninas. I don't think people should be silent with awe in the presence of Proper Art, but I do think that if you don't actually want to see the pictures, you shouldn't go and see them. None of us will get extra marks for it.

There's too much in the big galleries, really, and it's hard not too love and hate them for that reason at the same time. As if you'd done well for your house by stocking up its pantry but the only way you were able to appreciate it was by being made to eat it all at once.

donalfall said...

This has been an ongoing debate in Art Historical/Critique circles for a long time now. If you were interested, you would start with Inside the White Cube by O'Doherty or Contemporary Cultures of Display by Barker ( as an OU book you can usually get that for a couple of bucks ), not to mention endless internet articles and pieces in probably every Art Magazine ever.

I don't view the messages as a problem per se. If someone doesn't need them, they don't need them. If the occasional person reads something in them that sparks a further interest, that's a win. If people are doing it just as a thing to do, they're just doing it as a thing to do. The Gallery gets its couple of pounds a head and continues its business.

Art has always been fashionable, it follows patronage around. If there is nothing more to the attendances at National Galleries et al than people going because they think they should, that is a major coup for the Galleries cultural force. I think people are getting some enjoyment out of it though.

If brief analyses are the price you pay so that the public get to be the patron of the work rather than a very few, I think it's probably a small price to pay.

Travelling to Krakow to see my personal favourite Da Vinci though - impeccable taste. :)

Tim said...

I suppose it depends on the sort of artwork? Some of it is perplexing.

For example, captions would be useful for distinguishing between spilt paint and a Jackson Pollock.

girlonthenet said...

I agree, although it had never occurred to me that the it's an issue with art - it's mainly annoyed me when it comes to theatre. If I go and see a show I'll leave with an opinion, but frequently get stuck in conversations with people about the show where they spout things that they've read in reviews - if they came because of a good review they loved the show. If they saw a bad review, they think the show was crap.

Although supporting material is important when forming opinion (captiona, reviews, Cliff notes, etc) people really do have a problem understanding that this stuff is there, usually, to entertain you. Or more likely, with art - to make you feel something. As you say - "to form your own, personal aesthetic response". If you only feel the things you've been told to feel then, apart from anything else, you're not getting your money's worth.

I've previously been told off for zooming round art galleries only looking at the things that catch my eye rather than shuffling around in a queue spending the allocated time on each picture. But, you know, I've paid to go there - I'm not going to pretend to like things or understand things if they don't make me feel anything. Especially when there are more exciting, fun things posted on the opposite wall.

Ben said...

While agreeing with much of what you say, I wish to stand up for the existence of captions and guides, both of which I use and will continue to use.

For me (someone who knows little and cares relatively little for what is found in art galleries) I have two different experiences in galleries. In fact, I have two different reasons for being there.

If it's art I respond to then I can just enjoy it. This might mean an emotional reaction (Rothko) being intrigued or delighted (Anith Kapoor) or just thinking it's beautiful (Monet). I might read the captions but I don't need them and certainly wouldn't focus on them.

But there is plenty of art that I don't respond to. Confront me with a huge oil painting of the God of Whatever or the Earl or Someplace and it just doesn't mean anything to me.

But I do have some curiosity and occasionally explore galleries of art that I don't necessarily respond to. it's then that captions and guides are invaluable. Otherwise I end up looking at yet another painting, wondering what the fuss is or what I'm not seeing.

Twinkle-tastic said...

Whirling figures unceasing movement
Outline and realigning illusion of twisting
Repeating and repeating
Shock of still a serenity unmatched;
the globe swallows all. Silence.

It inspired poetry in me. I thought it was incredible.

Nicole Coates said...

(oops...Las Meninas, I mean)

C Murray said...

I google+ (ed) the link :-)

Fiona Hanley said...

I'm an advertising art director and graphic designer, so a commercial artist I guess. When I get a brief, often working with a copywriter, I know pretty quickly how I want it to 'feel'. The tricky bit is getting from there to knowing exactly what it's going to look like. There's a lot of aimless sky staring and off-topic doodles until the eureka moment. There's no gradual arrival at the concept, it's "'oh gawd I got nothing' then... Boom, it's there! Ooh and you could do this, and this, and this!" When the execution is ready for presentation it's time to write up the creative rational - let's call it the caption - a wordy spiel which suggests that the solution to the brief was arrived at with steady and unerring logic, that there was certain reassuring inevitability about the rightness of this particular creative response. It's pretendy post-rationalisation to be honest. But is it bulls***? Not really. The logic was there all along but it was subliminal. Is the caption/creative rationale necessary? I guess. It helps sell the work. It reassures the client. Tell you what though, on the happy occasions when the work is extra fantastic the account directors generally don't bother to ask for a rationale.

Anonymous said...

Such an interesting dialogue here. Note worthy comments from paolov, Nicole Coates, donalfall so far.

I feel however some of you have missed an angle of Jack of Kent's points.

This sums it up for me: "Then you can enjoy art; for to form your own, personal aesthetic response can be the most wonderful feeling in the world."

Taking the moment to absorb, by having an article affect you, relying on a 'feeling', a reaction to a 'thought' a 'thing' is profound. In art I find this to be overwhelming.

I have an emotionally response. Instant. There it is.
Tangible. Felt.

Whilst my left brain is satisfied, my right brain may ache for more.

I indulge this, if the need is there. And examine the caption, to propel the existential nature of the experience.

Thank you Jack of Kent and all for this dialogue.

Lucinda Wheeler @TheLProfile

Korhomme said...

I often need help understanding pictures; I don't know the colour code, for example, that tells me who is being represented. And a picture like "The Ambassadors" is impossible without an explanation of the symbols.

Nearly Legal said...

First of two comments, as there's two issues here.

First, and before I get to the 'but', I wholly agree about the typical behaviour at major exhibitions. The ear phone guides even omit many of the paintings, so those are just bypassed and not even looked at (Much to my joy when a painting I really want to look at is not on the set trail). The captions seem to take up most of most people's time, with the painting looked at only to the extent that the details of the caption can be checked off against the actual work.

I also agree that many people, including many who go to the major shows are not at all confident about art. The captions and voiceover commentary serve as a balm to that anxiety, while removing the need to actually look at the art itself.

But is it is simple as a world without captions and a personal aesthetic response?

As Jack of Kent surely knows, having done some art history at degree level, paintings such as Leonardo's are saturated with symbolic meanings that would have been understood by the cultured aristocrats or the educated religious order that formed the audience. This audience had no need of captions because they understood and dealt in the same symbols and meanings (this is an over simplification, but will have to do).

Those people could just look at the works because the visual language was shared. We are very far from that time and we - even the very best of art historians - have to grope at meanings and attempt to reconstruct that language.

So it should not be presumed that these paintings were intended primarily or even at all for a personal aesthetic response form the viewer. They weren't.

Jack says Leonardo wouldn't have looked at captions. We can't know, but I very much suspect that he would. Leonardo's notebooks are themselves an elaborate system of captioning of techniques and images. He was extremely aware of his contemporaries and responded to them. And Leonardo didn't 'just look keenly'. His diagrams of the eye, for instance are not drawn from observation at all, but based on the accounts of others.

The idea that one looked at a painting for a personal aesthetic response was alien to Leonardo, for all that beauty was a topic of debate at the time. 'Beauty' or what was to be considered beautiful itself had a meaning at that moment.

Either that culture and meaning matters when one looks at a Leonardo, or it doesn't. Jack has an art historical training. That doesn't get un-learned when one is in front of a painting. I suspect it is a lot easier to respond to a painting on an aesthetic level when you are aware of its place in its time and in art history and something of its symbolic meaning.


Nearly Legal said...

Part 2

There is something else going on here. There is the personal aesthetic response - which can indeed be a wonderful experience - and then there is work which relies upon being in a gallery to be considered art.

This is apparently how "so many 'modern artists' [sic] get away with such shoddy charlatanism". I have to ask why the inverted commas around 'modern artists'? Why 'modern' artists?

If it is about present day charlatanism, why not just current 'artists'? 'Modern artists' is surely a bit of a dog whistle term, with a history. It's the Tate bricks, the ICA nappies, Emin's bed etc. etc..

I think it is about a kind of art technique that originally was about playing with the idea and boundaries of art but has now become mainstream, in which ordinary objects or imagery are announced as art.

This is quite a leap from criticising the behaviour of people in a major exhibition, such as the Leonardo show. A leap from the reliance on captions of those nervous in the face of art, to the reliance of much contemporary art on a gallery context, for which the caption stands. The shift appears to be based on the idea that the work of art must stand by itself, with no context or setting, and provoke a personal aesthetic response.

This is a very 19th century idea. It wasn't around before then. That doesn't make it wrong, of course, but it is a relatively recent idea. It also very much tends to be an idea espoused by people who have had some art historical training. (I'd be one of them. I'll see Jack's trip to Krakow and raise him Prague and New York, just to see particular paintings.)

But if that is right, and nothing my pre law years in art history would contradict it, then Jack's cry for people to 'just experience the paintings dammit' isn't really helpful, People who haven't had the training look for a kind of crutch to help them when told this is an important artwork - what does it mean? What is the symbolism? How does it relate to the artist's life? What are they supposed to think or feel?

In the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, I witnessed one young American point to a painting and say to her friend, 'I think it was at this point that he went mad'. She was wrong on the dates in any event, but this was their way to understand the paintings - an iffy and romanticised biography.

And then there are the 'modern artists'. The best of those who work by using the everyday or contextual experience in the gallery space are also seeking to see clearly, trying to give a new view and a new meaning to the familiar world and experiences around them. They are still dealing in metaphors, still looking for the best expression, but a part of that is necessarily, now, a self consciousness about the work being art.

The resulting artworks might not be suitable for someone looking for a personal aesthetic response, although some of them are. But that was not the defining characteristic of art for centuries before the 1800s and it may be that since the 1960s it is ceasing to be so. I rather hope not, but I think it is.

Jack says "it all comes down to that most banal and preposterous of questions: what is art?" This is the wrong question. If it gets called art in some form of artworld setting (museum, gallery, show etc.) then it is art, period. The important question is instead is it good art?

The majority of all art produced at any given time was and is crap and some of the rubbish was feted as being wonderful at the time it was produced.

It is the same now as it ever was, save that there is more of it. The techniques used by the artists are by the by. However, it may be that the measure of 'good' and the way to approach artworks are not the same as they mostly have been since the late 19th century.

All of that said, any artist who spends more time on their press relase than the work is certainly rubbish. And art history should be a compulsory subject in schools.

Tamara Quinn said...

I agree that is sad to see people just staring at the captions and hardly looking at the paintings. I also agree that this is no reason to abolish captions.

It seems obvious that information about a work of art is capable of enhancing your appreciation of it. I've loved The Lady With an Ermine since I first saw a copy of it, and can't wait to have the chance to see the real thing. A couple of weeks ago I saw a BBC programme about Da Vinci. The presenter explained that the ermine was a symbol of purity, but was also part of (I think, this is from memory) the coat arms of the man who commissioned the painting, and that the woman was his mistress.

For me, that knowledge adds a delicious extra depth and richness to my reaction to the picture. The information from a caption could do the same. Isn't it simply a case of making sure you look at, respond to and think about the painting before reading the explanation?

rjh01 said...

This may relate to the debate that goes on about a certain painting. Was it painted by
1. A great master?
2. One of his students?
3. A fake done at the time the great master lived?
4. A modern fake?

The answer to the above question determines the value of the painting. But the painting is the same. If people could enjoy a painting for what it is, the above question would not be important, nor would looking at the captions.

David Clifton said...

I agree with much of what you say.
However I do think it essential to allow a potential viewer every possibility of enrichment, in terms of breadth and depth of presentation. Without education, it is impossible to go deeper than a surface response to some works of art. Singular enjoyment of art for its own sake is fine, but how sad to miss much of a painters intention, or a historical narrative, perspective and reasoning behind a work, when and where it exists.
If you will permit me to bastardise a Herbert poem it would go like this:
“The one that looks on art, on it may stay their eye; or if they choose, then through it pass, and then a heaven espy”.
Or hell, perhaps, in the case of Bosch and Pieter Bruegel II.
To miss greater meaning is to miss an opportunity to grow.
Why is the viewer attending an exhibition? Education? Inspiration? Pure and simple ‘in the moment’ enjoyment of colour & form? So much of historical art was underwritten by patronage, either of royalty or the church. Artists (and schools of painting) were influenced by the political, social and religious climates of their day. Certain exhibitions very much need curators to provide a wider contextual explanation, rather than just a frame, name and date.
The mention of Leonardo da Vinci and Lady With An Ermine is a case in point, (it is thought to represent Ceciilia Gallerani, mistress of Ludovico Il Moro. The word ‘Galleriani’ is almost the same in Greek as the word ‘Ermine’. A small but illuminating detail.)
We tweeted about Holman Hunt's Light Of the World. Many viewers fail to notice the missing door handle, thereby missing one of the central themes and manifestos of the work.
Of course it is beyond the scope of every gallery and exhibition to give an in-depth historical narrative for each work, but when present it can provide the springboard to greater learning and understanding. One hopes this will educate not just an enthusiastic public, but also illuminate and inspire those of our nations current creators to produce art which will in turn outlast them and inspire future generations.
We assume a level of education amongst our younger generations that is simply non-existent. In the minds of many young people, art and art galleries are the refuge of the posh and the privileged, whilst the current art and true social commentary of the disenfranchised and forgotten generations takes place on the walls of the bus station, buildings and bridges between Finsbury Park and Stockwell; or along the walls and tracksides of any city we care to name.
Art is a lie that tells the truth, Picasso said.
Art can educate and inspire, as well as exist for the fun of its own sake. And if this is the case, how do we, as the privileged and educated, intend to provide opportunities for growth, and understanding?
And what of those who completely miss the point and purpose of a work of art? As a voting public and those responsible for education, we have failed several generations.
The average level of understanding and comprehension of British and European history amongst many current school leavers is almost non-existent. To talk about the revolutionary illusionism of Giotto, which set western art on its stunning trajectory (until the nineteenth century, at least) is something that is irrelevant to their daily lives.
And this is a tragedy, of course, because it is not. Art has always stood alongside, and been closely linked with social, political and spiritual change, for better or worse. It has reflected and stated political purpose, historical upheavals and religious events, and the tragedy of war. Art has been, and still is, interwoven through the very fabric of most aspects of daily life.
The state of our current national artistic output is not quite what it might be when compared to the last three centuries of British art. So my question is this. How do we propose to enrich, inspire and educate our nation once again, and raise a new standard in British art?
And I am not suggesting that captions are necessarily the answer.

Richard P said...

I'm not sure it's worth being quite so Taliban about reading or not reading the captions; as paolov, Dickon Edwards et al. have said, they are often useful to get the context of the work. When thoughtfully written. What does irritate me greatly, though, are the cases where the captions are written by someone engaged in a form of art critique bulls***t bingo, and crafted to show the understanding of the writer rather than enlightening the casual viewer.
I'm not a fan of the "just look at it and if you like it that's fine and if you don't move on" school of looking at paintings, since I like to try and advance my taste to include new things, and if a caption helps me to see something that I would not instinctively have seen, then that's great. It's like hearing a new song/tune on the radii and thinking "that's garbage" and then discovering it was by an artist you really admire: you hear it in a new way.

phisheep said...

I think much of this has to do with limitations on time and high admission prices, leading to a feeling that you have to get your money’s worth, or ‘do’ the whole exhibition. Unlike say, a rugby match, experiencing art isn’t naturally time-limited – and the economic constraints of running a gallery or visiting one go right against the best ways of appreciating the works on display. After all many, perhaps most, works were intended to be enjoyed over a period of years rather than minutes.

For that reason I don’t go to these one-off exhibitions any more – I find the atmosphere daunting and counterproductive. And for the same reason the best exhibitions I’ve seen in recent years were (a) the small rotating mini-collection that’s in Schiphol Airport, especially when your plane is delayed and (b) the Rijksmuseum when it was nearly all closed for refurbishment. Oh, and the John Soanes’ which is just plain bonkers and good for light relief and the tiny room of Piranesis. In these three cases, plenty of time to absorb what’s going on and no opportunity or temptation to rush past things.

With permanent collections I like to take my time. I’m ‘doing’ the Louvre, National Portrait Gallery and the Walker over many visits and many years. For me, the captions are for answering questions (Who did that? When? Where is it? Why did anyone think this was worth exhibiting?) but sometimes they fail, as for instance once in the basement of the Louvre where my initial response after the visceral was “how on earth did they get that down the stairs?”.

Robert Webb said...

If the exhibiton is of just one artist, and presented in chronological order, then the captions are largely superfluous. You can see whatever progress / decline / change in style the artist made in the lifetime's work on show.

However, in a mixed exhibition, it's essential to know who did what, when it was painted, what medium was used and then perhaps any other relevant information to add further interest.

In any case, people will differ on the order in which they view things.

I prefer to take in the visual impact of a work before reading any captions. If an artwork holds no interest, who bothers with the captions?

I was at an exhibition of Canada's 'Group of Seven' painters yesterday at Dulwich Picture Gallery, so the way people were viewing is fresh in my mind. The captions were necessary because the works were mixed and the artists fairly obscure in the scheme of world art, but I saw people mostly taking in the work itself before leaning over to see the caption.

While your piece is thought-provoking and partly true, there's a danger of assuming that one's observations of other people are 100 per cent correct. It's all a bit subjective.

In other words, casual observations, opinions and generalisations may have a 'ring' of truth in them, but hard to accept as being totally correct without more rigorous and accurate research data.

Heather said...

There is appreciation of art and Art Appreciation. Appreciating art is all about the gut and brain - how you react to a work and what it makes you think and feel. Art Appreciation, on the other hand, is about studying works and exploring ideas about them and in them.

I tend to whizz through exhibitions only stopping to take in paintings that literally arrest me and make me take a longer look. I have many favourite art pieces and on occasions have visited far off places just to view them.

I have also, however, been brought around to enjoy and appreciate paintings which I have dismissed in the past, as they did not arrest me initially, through Art Appreciation classes and that makes me very happy.

Captions by themselves tell you very little but a good long look at a painting may give you something that you will never lose and a lecture by an enthusiast can be in itself a work of art.

Art tourism is just what it is; I am sure even looking at captions or shuffling along with audio guides people will take something away from the experience.

Paul Bernal said...

Very interesting post - and set of comments from people with far more expertise than me. My tuppence worth is that I think a lot of the problem comes from a confusion or equation between art galleries and museums.

For some museums, explanations are often crucial in order to understand the exhibits, and audio aids can help in other ways - listening to reconstructions of Aztec music while looking at Aztec artefacts for example. With galleries, it's rather the opposite, at least from the perspective of viewing art for in terms of artistic appreciation - and in particular modern art. For 'historical' art, I'm often interested in the historical context in which the art was created - and in those cases, the roles of museums and art galleries overlap.

Joseph Takagi said...

The point of such exhibitions (and most galleries for most people) is for bored middle-aged couples to have something to go to at weekends, and something to talk about at dinner parties later to make themselves seem more interesting.

That's what the tags are about. It's not enough that you like a picture, you have to be able to tell people that you saw a Pissaro or a Seurat, maybe to pick up a few bits of information to regurgitate.

And yes, some people genuinely love art. But I do wonder how many...

Mrs Angry said...

Manuela: to take issue with your point about intellectual snobbery, I think the reverse is true: relying on labels to provide the viewer with the correct interpretation of the work is patronising and unnecessary. If art has to be translated through another medium, it has surely failed to communicate whatever is being expressed by the artist. I think the urge to categorise everything is restrictive and deadly: for much the same reason I loathe the English Heritage corporate approach to the presentation of historic buildings, their art collections and other contents, which destroys the spirit and individuality of the property.

Stephen Booth said...

I suspect a lot of the problem is how art has been (and probably still is) taught. Art is taught as something that has to be understood and understanding is taught as being hard, something only really intelligent people can do. My strongest memory from school art classes is being told off for interpreting Dali's "Persistence of Memory" 'wrong'. Because my interpretation differed from the one the art teacher had read I was shouted at and ridiculed in front of the class. I got absolutely no credit for the fact that I was the only one in the class who bothered to actually express any sort of thought into what the picture was about and try to express a thought about it.

Personally I think understanding art is more about understanding the feelings it evokes and putting those in the historical context, not the piece itself. A good piece of art is a form of non-verbal communication that involves the visual and kinethetic, the logical and the lateral. That's not something you can put on a little white card. All that should be on the card is the name of the artist, the date it was produced, the materials and maybe some historical context.

Harry said...

My personal beef is with labels that presume to tell me what my reaction is. I don't mind factual information, or historical context, or even the artist's intentions, if they are actually known and not speculative.

What does annoy me is when a label says something like 'this work encourages the viewer to think about the shallowness of modern consumerism' or 'this work creates an atmosphere of melancholy' or whatever. Which seems to be a particular tendency of contemporary art exhibitions, so it may be a passive-aggressive way of stating the artist's intentions. But it reduces the chance of me getting anything out of the work, if only because it makes me grumpy.

Penglish said...

Most captions in my experience don't tell you what to think about a work, but rather give it some context: where and when the painter painted it, for example.

I often find the context interesting, and feel it enhances my appreciation of the piece.

Anonymous said...

I am firmly with the no labels camp. They invariably do not tell the informed much that they dont know and the less well informed are not really interested in what is written. I am also with Penny on the theme of blockbusters but they seem to be necessary evil and fulfill an essential role in moving thinking forward, well a least some of the time. I think the question is whether handhelds will act ad digital tyranny and distraction in the that label do presently? Te use of hand Jelfs also challenges the authority of the institution as the 'authentic' voice and that is interesting in itself. The use of the app for Kost in Lace at BMAG Is jus one example if how practice is developing in response to new technologies. Give m a catalogue any day and kill off the label!

Laura said...

"Any one who spends longer reading a caption explaining a work of art than actually looking at the work of art has no business in an art gallery"

I have had for years, at 26, friends who feel they have no business in an art gallery because they 'don't understand art'. I've said to them that it's a kind of skill that isn't taught; if you look at art for long enough, you will have a reaction to it without needing to know anything about colour theory, or composition, etc. and if you know the context then the piece it will be more powerful/meaningful. But the extra knowledge shouldn't be necessary. I don't think that the disposition of looking at the captions is best dealt with by impatience.
I do think that the cleverest of people claim to not understand art because it's something they can't confidently talk about, perhaps.
The captions beside works give no insight, and I've long given up expecting them to, but I do still read them, they give at least the basics to go home and burrow more into whomever.
Lots of people are interested, but feel a bit oppressed by a medium they're not perhaps comfortable with, and the little info pads at the side give a bit of reassurance. All good, I think.

Melanie Tucker said...

Surely the point of the captions is merely to inform the person looking at the piece to some pertinent facts relating to the afore mentioned artwork.
It is not intended to manipulate their opinion or to steer them one way or another on a piece.
If like you say,people should make up their own minds, just because *you* feel they pass through too quickly does not mean they are not getting a meaningful experience. Just as you judge the art as an individual,so do they and I ask.. who are you to judge them?.

Andrew Miles said...

I agree entirely. I had a day at The Hermitage and managed three rooms. Various tours took people through most of the rooms and just by doing the maths one could tell they barely had seconds to view each picture. I averaged ten mins - well Rembrandts deserve attention and not someone saying 'oh that's nice'

Rob Myers said...

"We appear to have reached the ridiculous point where the most serviceable answer to what is art is: art is what is placed in an art gallery."

This point was reached in the 1960s with "The Institutional Theory of Art". This is the current dominant theory of art in the artworld. See Arthur Danto and George Dickie on this.

Modernism was a particular phase of art history. Current artists are "Contemporary" artists, and yes many of them are very bad. Plus ça change, but there is good art being made today and not all of it can be understood after gazing at The Haywain or through Immersion-Tingle theory.

Increasing the general public's artistic literacy would tackle both of these problems. Placards are a way of doing this.

Neil Howlett said...

Yes, Yes and Yes again! If only we had the courage of our convictions. I have had a long term plan, that I have so far wimped out of, to go to Tate Modern with my own caption reading “The door was made by Bill Smith. Bill has had an interest in carpentry since his childhood and was trained in DT classes by Mr Sam Williams. A feature of his work is the characteristic right-angle at the corners and the way in which the door and frame are almost exactly parallel”. I would stick it on the wall by a door, stand at the back of the room and watch.
This arises from a visit some years ago when they had an exhibition which was a room being re-decorated and at the same time a room being re-decorated – the only difference was that one was a work of art and had a caption to say so . . .

James said...

Can I read the caption after please?

Hope's that's ok with you?

Wouldn't want to be in a place I shouldn't be.

Ben Murphy said...

This blogpost is a typical example of 'Early Art-comment Jack of Kent.' Blog-historians agree that after D.A.Green started blogging for The New Statesman and The Lawyer, his Jack of Kent blog underwent an artistic turn, incorporating material that might otherwise have gone onto Jack About Town.

At this stage, he was still very much under the influence of 'The Sun Says' editorial style, as one can tell from examining the use of sentence structure.

Yonmei said...

Surely it depends how long (or how amusing) the caption is?

"Any one who spends longer reading a caption explaining a work of art than actually looking at the work of art has no business in an art gallery."

I've seen captions in art galleries that were 100 or more words long. I do often read them. I don't spend longer reading them than I do looking at the work of art, but I'm a fast reader.

Should slow or dyslexic readers consider themselves to have no business in an art gallery? Shouldn't galleries (and artists) consider whether they really need to write captions of that length?