Let’s free art from the shackles of gibberish!

Visual art and the text that explains it are uneasy bedfellows, I firmly believe.

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, but a visit to far too many art galleries today either leaves me in a state of suppressed fury or with a severe case of the giggles.

It has nothing to do with the art (although, of course, art can have those same effects); instead, it’s brought on by the text that accompanies the art.

“The startling dialectical format of the work neatly bridges the postmodern chasm between the real and the not-real, forcing us to confront the mortality and morality of neo-Renaissance humanity and the strictures our libertarian leanings place on our Darwinian non-sequiturs…” is complete and utter nonsense, and yet it wouldn’t be out of place on the walls of far too many galleries.

The writers of such panels (and brochures and catalogs) tend to use words in ways they were never intended, ways that make me groan, shudder or (and I’m sure this is the last effect such writers are aiming for) snicker. What’s important apparently isn’t so much making yourself understood as demonstrating the expanse of your vocabulary.

(Another possible reason for this style of writing: convoluted, impenetrable strings of misused words and bizarre jargon impresses the grant-granters, on whose fickle largesse almost everyone in the arts depends. Perhaps I’m being overly cynical…but I doubt it.)

Art is not text. (How’s that for a nice clear statement?) A painting may be worth a thousand words, but it is not a thousand words; it is pigment, texture, composition. It communicates to us in an entirely different manner than text; appealing both to our intellect and our emotions in a way that only music can equal.

So why does the work of art need any text accompanying it at all, beyond perhaps the bare facts of who made it and when (and even that is completely unnecessary to the enjoyment of the art)? If the artwork is doing its job, then it should communicate without words.

Having posed that question, let me answer it. Art, it seems, must be accompanied by words to ensure that you get the message out of it that the artist intended. If you look at a wall filled with oddly coloured paintings of rabbits, you’re probably not going to understand that it’s an indictment of animal abuse unless there is text telling you that that’s what it is. Otherwise, you may get some entirely different message out of it. You may see it as condoning the slaughter of rabbits, you may see it as a comical take on the art of portraiture, or you may just shrug it off as utter claptrap.

The artist labored long and hard on this stinging appeal for animal rights, and quite naturally wants to be sure you get the point. And so the point is hammered home with text, albeit, far too often, badly written, hard-to-understand text.

Here’s a radical approach to take to gallery going. Refuse to read the text panels. Don’t pick up the brochures. View the art unencumbered by the notions the artist may have had about what he or she was doing. See what the artwork communicates to you, before you read what it was supposed to communicate, or what it communicated to someone else.

Once you’ve viewed the art, then read the text, if you wish, to see what someone else’s opinion is, or to see what the artist thought he or she was doing…but never believe that what you read invalidates your own opinion.

Just like music and fiction, art is ultimately a collaboration between the artist and the viewer. The artist creates, but the viewer interprets; both sides of the equation are necessary, and without either, the artwork has no real existence as art. The art that lasts will do so on its own merits, not on the merits of the thicket of verbiage woven around it by the writers of text panels and gallery catalogues.

Great art speaks to us down through the ages without interpretation.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2000/06/lets-free-art-from-the-shackles-of-gibberish/

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