17 Jul

Linda Norden on ‘Explaining’ Art

“This also evoked a strong position Norden has in response to the pervasive use of wall text, video documentary, brochures etc, which have become the norm of contemporary exhibitions. The urge of curators to make difficult work “accessible.” Perhaps the art world equivalent of “no child left behind.” And we all know what a disaster that has been.

“The minute you tell people what the work is about,” she said. “If an explanation is the point of entry (wall text or elaborately descriptive labels) then it is a guide to everything else you see. I don’t believe in ignoring what other people think of work but I feel that people should not be afraid of encountering what they see on its own terms or in context with other work.”

She discussed the intentions of an artist to have work seen in a particular way and the mandate to respect that. The installation and the manner in which the work is presented defines the art form of a curator. The mandate of the curator, however, is to respect how the artist wants us to experience the work. Clearly, many curators muck about with that. I agree strongly with Norden on that point and mostly don’t bother to read text on the walls and resent groups of visitors huddled around specific works listening to an art star on ubiquitous acoustaguides “explain” the work.

That effort may be counterproductive to encouraging visitors to have their own encounter. On the other hand, when I take students to museums they often convey engaging work that had previously been largely “invisible” to them. Just as I might benefit from having a musician “explain” a Mahler symphony. A high school student recently conveyed to me that when a work of literature is “explained to death” in class it “kills” the experience.

Are contemporary curators providing the short hand “Cliff Notes” for difficult contemporary work? In my avant-garde seminar, for example, students often convey frustration that I have not “explained” the work. There is the assumption that the professor should know the answers. I respond that it is the process and debate about the work that is important. Students must learn to deal with the manner in which the artist engages us. As the “consumer” or “critic” we have an opportunity and right to determine the degree and depth of our involvement. We can “pull the plug” or “hang in there.” Contemporary art challenges the limit of our attention span.”

Read More