‘…one must take special precautions, since it is a dangerous and contagious disease.’
Pierre Abélard writing to Heliose.
Artist Juno Doran did warn me. Be careful or you’ll get sucked into the perpetual non-working state of bloggophillia. I can see what she meant – unfortunately she presumes that I have the attention span of at least two goldfish, when it is well known that my attention span would be challenged in duration by a single, impatient and late for an appointment goldfish. But I did find myself thinking this morning, as I ambled down the hospital corridors where I work, taking in the displayed art hung for our cultural edification. I was wondering what the accumulated variety of work had behind it – and I don’t mean the walls.
You know what they say – ‘No names, no pack drill’ so I won’t identify anyone in particular, and I’ve probably been guilty of the same thing at some time. Wall notes accompanying art, initially produced with all good intent, for the benefit of throwing additional light on work whose meaning or raison d’etre may seem a little difficult to pluck from the fathomless depths of the artistic intellect. It occurred to me again when struggling to remain silent amongst last Saturday afternoon’s Arnolfini chin-strokers. I probably don’t have enough in my life but this thought has obviously been driving a mental bumper car around my head since the weekend.
If I assume that the art is not only produced for the artist’s cathartic benefit but also for the audience’s interested consumption what is the correct way to interpret contemporary conceptualism? I presume its very nature of tending to avoid figurative representation and ‘traditional’ media would suggest that any response would have to either fall into one of two categories, the aesthetic, formalist criticism or a social enquiry response.
If the meaning or purpose of the work is tied to our aesthetic interpretation then the only purpose of the wall note should be to tell us the barest minimum about it (for reference purposes perhaps) such as who was responsible, when it was created, perhaps even who owns it.
If the meaning is tied to the artist making a social or philosophical observation – which would suggest an intrinsic role of communication – then the work is by definition poor, if it cannot be interpreted without an intermediary wall or catalogue note.
If the concept can be so succinctly put across surely it makes the artwork redundant.
So I’ll be happy to enter an art gallery and see referential supporting evidence for both older painting and sculpture and contemporary work when it applies to a history that we may not know.
I’ll read the wall notes if I want to know who made the work, but I don’t want an explanation that the work itself should be offering.
I’ll also happily accept an empty gallery pasted with row upon row of notes that expound great philosophical or social insights, unencumbered by the baggage of inadequate artifice – but I think these may already be in existence and go under the name of ‘libraries’.
It wouldn’t be so bad if the ubiquitous wall notes ever said anything different. Unfortunately they generally contain the same art phrases and clichés about the work ‘challenging the viewer’s preconceptions’ or ‘addressing the issue of.’
For once I’d like to challenge the artist’s arrogant preconceptions that the viewers are so unenlightened and ignorant that they require their preconceptions to be challenged by a twenty something recent fine arts graduate. Similarly, though art has a role in highlighting social issues and political agendas it rarely goes beyond the function of preaching to the converted.
If words are needed in the work I’ll include them in the work and not on the wall by the side of the work.
No wall notes required