The Problem of the Wall Label . . .

Stephen Nowlin/ There are, as this symposium shows, many approaches crowded under the Sci-Art umbrella. For the one having to do with exhibiting works of science-based art, the quaint convention of the gallery wall label conceals much deeper issues than its quietly pragmatic utility would suggest. First of all, gallery labels are annoying — tiny little extra rectangles, visual objects in themselves, that dot the wall and exude residue of having hawked one’s craftwork at a peg-board street fair. Worse, though, they trumpet the century outmoded single-channel notion that each work of art is “on display itself” rather than part of a cohesive aesthetic and intellectual whole where only an installation free of all unnecessary visual flak will suffice. Wall labels in a gallery are like leaving a metronome going during the symphony. But their truly criminal act is when they historicize and decode the work of art, and by so doing  padlock it to a particular meaning, a sanctioned history, reducing it to a mere illustration and sidekick of the tiny text object that explains it. The debauchery of the didactic! This theft of an artwork’s resonance, its pliability and potential to inflame sensations of transcendence, is especially likely when it comes to Sci-Art. Maintaining the integrity of an artwork as an object that ignites meaning and sensation surreptitiously and experientially, that exerts a kind of alchemy, a gravity that summons diverse associations and interpretations into its orbit, that resonates freely and shepherds onlookers in random meandering paths of meaning — that amazing unique power of art harnessed to the profound mystery and ontological torque of science must not be shackled by too ambitious an attempt to corral the art inside too specific a meaning. Unless your desire is to run a science museum, instead of an art gallery — where you can communicate science with the banality of a high-school textbook, instead of the impassioned spirit of a poet. . .

6 Replies to “The Problem of the Wall Label . . .”

  1. “The debauchery of the didactic”: This sounds like the title of an essay that’s begging to be written. Thanks for this post, Stephen. It’s refreshing to hear that some curators are pushing back against what I see as the increasing infantilization of the audience. (Of course, curators aren’t the only ones complicit in this; most artists I know will seize every opportunity to explain their work before the viewer even has a chance to experience it for herself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to an artist’s studio where the artist has stood between me and the work — both literally and figuratively in every way imaginable. By the time I finally get to look at the damned things I usually find I’m no longer interested.)

  2. This reminds me of many years ago when I worked at the Guggenheim as a guard. Bored and standing for hours next to great art, I began an experiment of observing how the masses experience art. I soon noticed a pattern that would often go like this: viewers would stroll in and give an artwork a general glance with a blank expression. This would soon be followed by the inevitable dash for the label. Once a cognitive link and association is made- “Hey that’s a Picasso!”, the face lights up as they step back to bask in this now great work with a newfound sense of admiration. After observing this so many times, I was left asking: why can’t they trust their own innate ability to see and have an experience directly? Is this a product of a lack of art education? I agree that labels are distracting, but wonder if the masses would complain about their absence!

    1. It must have been disheartening to see that all day every day, Dan! I do think the dearth of art education in our schools is part of the problem, but I suspect it’s also a function of a much larger and more insidious problem — namely, the lack of critical thinking skills in the population at large. To me, critical thinking is independent thinking, thinking that pushes beyond all the platitudes we’re conditioned to accept as givens. Not engaging in it can be attributed to intellectual laziness, on one level, but on a deeper level it seems to be rooted in fear. It’s both much easier *and* more comfortable to think, do, and say things that come pre-endorsed by popular consensus. In other words, it’s much easier and more comfortable to always be “right” than to risk having an original thought that might go the other way. Although this has probably always been the case, I imagine it’s much worse now with the platitude perpetuator that is the 24-hour news cycle. In any case, I say let the masses complain. If every museum got rid of its wall labels they’d have no choice but to look. At the very least, we might consider it an experiment in the promotion of uncertainty.

      1. Good point Taney. Also an element compounding the issue is illustrated in the Asch Conformity experiments where subjects gave wrong answers despite obviously being wrong in order to conform with the thinking of a group. Too bad we can’t connect critical thinking and art education in our schools…

        1. Wow. The psychology of conformity is really disturbing. The problem seems so deeply rooted that overcoming it on any large scale feels depressingly unlikely. But you’re right: it does come down to early education, which can be changed. And one thing we artists can do is encourage rigorous critical thinking in the classes we teach. For reasons cited earlier in the symposium, though, art schools seem particularly mired in conformist tendencies. I’m sure you do it in your classes as well, but one thing I try to encourage in mine is the free expression of weird, outlier opinions. It’s hard for students at first, but once they realize they’re not going to be censured for saying something nobody else agrees with it becomes easier. (I begin by saying I don’t think the Mona Lisa is such a great painting. They all gasp in horror.)

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