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Issue 124 June-August 2009 RSS

The Wrong Words

State of the Art

When wall texts in museums and galleries are meant to elucidate and educate, why are most of them badly written, full of jargon, and painfully reductive?

‘Warm work, Jeeves’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Opens the pores a bit.’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘How quiet everything seems now.’
‘Yes, sir. “Silence like a poultice comes to heal the blows of sound.”’
‘Shakespeare?’
‘No, sir, the American author Oliver Wendell Holmes. His poem “The Organ Grinders”. An aunt of mine used to read it to me as a child.’
                P.G. Wodehouse, Much Obliged Jeeves (1971)

Among the many running jokes that thread through P.G. Wodehouse’s series of short stories and novels concerning the adventures of the hearty young English aristocrat Bertram Wooster and his highbrow valet Jeeves is the master’s inevitable, and inevitably incorrect, attribution of the servant’s literary quotations to Shakespeare. While Wodehouse’s comic target is partially class (hereditary privilege, in this bucolic inter-war fantasy, fates the wise man to fold the fool’s trousers), it is also the decline of common cultural reference points on which educated persons might draw to better understand the world, and representations of it. An Eton and Oxford man, Bertie’s enthusiasms run to fast cars, popular songs, fashion, cinema and sports. Like the Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti or Kenneth Grahame’s Mr. Toad, his is a headlong race into Modernity in which libraries and museums are, if not flooded and burned, then mostly unfamiliar territory. And why not? If he ever requires a cultural pointer or two, all he need do is to consult his valet – a living, breathing wall text in immaculate morning dress.

Major museums and galleries provide wall texts because of three problems – or, at least, what are perceived to be problems. The first of these is simply identification, which is solved by the classic ‘tombstone’ label, detailing a work’s author, title, date, dimensions (surely unnecessary in the exhibition space itself? Has anyone ever exclaimed ‘2440 x 1830mm, whouda thunk it?’) and provenance. The second and third are a little more complex, and might be characterized as the perceived absence, among a broad audience, of the art historical knowledge to put a work into context, and the assumed inability of the work to communicate to that audience on the work’s own terms. If these problems actually are problems – and most large institutions seem to think they are – then it follows that the devices with which they address them are absolutely vital to the enterprise of exhibition-making, and should be of a corresponding quality. Why is it, then, that so many museum and gallery wall texts are so reductive, so intellectually unambitious, so badly written, and so physically intrusive that they feel less like the handiwork of Jeeves than of some shambling Igor?

One response to this might be that these texts are not written for a specialist audience, but I’m left wondering exactly what assumptions are being made about a non-specialist audience, and why their authors think that the best way to reach them is through leaden analysis, delivered in the most leaden of language. A typical example I recently chanced upon described an artist’s work as ‘investigating issues surrounding gender, power, community, and one’s place in our mass-mediated society’, a construction that serves next to no elucidatory purpose (if the artist was indeed concerned with this check-list of big, bold abstractions, surely it would be obvious from their work?) and fails to communicate anything in the way of excitement about looking and thinking. A wall text should make the viewer – any viewer – want to look at the work again. If it leaves us feeling neither more informed nor more enthused, it’s just visual junk, pointing at something that, if the artist who made it is any kind of artist at all, is already doing a pretty good job of pointing to itself.

In many major institutions, wall texts are vetted, or even written by, education staff, and perhaps this goes someway to explaining why the most fantastic of exhibitions can be accompanied by interpretative material that feels flat, or at odds with its spirit. While education is a fine thing, it is not the only or even primary purpose of an exhibition – just as one does not edit a novel to teach the reader about the novelist, or programme a series of concerts to teach the listener about a composer, neither does one curate an artist’s work with pedagogical intent. Museums and galleries are of course under pressure from governments to operate as places of learning, and handing responsibility for wall texts to education staff might seem like a fairly painless way of presenting themselves as such, but the result too often resembles watching a production of Hamlet, while somebody whispers the play’s high school guide in your ear. For those who write interpretation material, it’s worth considering the advice of Ingrid Schaffner in her excellent essay Ingrid Schaffner, Wall Text, 2003/6, Ink on paper, Courtesy the author (2003–6): ‘As much as possible, the label should appeal to someone who knows more, less, and as much as you do.’

In theory at least, wall texts are a powerful method of communication. Two modest proposals suggest themselves. The first is to remember that they are simply spaces where words can enrich the experience of art, and, to this end, could potentially call upon everything language is capable of. Might we imagine a wall text that could make us laugh, or cry, or one so elegant or intellectually surprising that we would recall it, unbidden, months later, in the bath or on the bus? The second proposal, dependent on the first, is that institutions remove all interpretative material from their displays at least one day a year. If this material is good enough – and it should be – visitors won’t remark on how pleasant it is to stroll through the wordless galleries, but feel, like Bertie during Jeeves’ annual vacation, the wall texts’ nagging lack.

Tom Morton

Tom Morton is a contributing editor of frieze, Curator at The Hayward Gallery, London, and co-curator of The British Art Show 7.


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Issue 124, June-August 2009

by Tom Morton

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