No wonder it [MOMA] ends up showing shallow, label-dependent art rather than work that offers deeper, more contradictory encounters. Art becomes a kind of one-liner. The viewer looks a little, reads a label, says “I get it” and shuffles on. If you are new to art, you don’t know what you are missing. If you aren’t, you feel had.
This post is a cry for help from someone who wants to love art. Half the time, I’m the one who doesn’t know what I’m missing. The other half, I feel had. And I don’t blame the art. I blame the labels.
I was at MOMA last week for the first time in their new site. If you haven’t been, it’s a fabulous building stuffed with heavy hitters. I felt like a Midwesterner at the Oscars. Turn left: there’s Picasso! Turn right: there’s Marky Rothko! The collection is disaggregated, grouped by floor (Painting and Sculpture 1) rather than artist, movement, time period, or geography. That was interesting and somewhat challenging in itself. But the thing that challenged me most were the labels.
MOMA has standard art museum labels. Most featured Name of Artist, Name of Piece, Year of Execution, Materials. Period. Is this enough? I constantly found myself standing in front of a painting, wanting to connect with it, and not knowing where to start. When I asked an art museum educator about this (“How should I look at art?”), she said that I had to start a conversation with the piece. Sounds great. How do I start? “So, how’s it hanging?” I found myself listening to the audio pieces not so much for the information as for an excuse to keep standing there, to combat my body’s readiness to “shuffle on.”
How can labels help people have a deeper connection with art? Here are a couple of things I’d like to see:
- Labels that instruct you where and how to look. Sometimes I listened to the audio pieces meant for visitors who are blind. Those audio descriptions were lovingly detailed, and listening as I looked, I saw more and grew more interested. Most people aren’t educated in how to look at art. Should you take it all in at once? Should you read it like a story? Should you move around to see it from different angles? Many labels just give you more complementary information about the piece/artist rather than promoting looking more deeply at the piece. Perhaps a successful label is not one you read all the way through, but one you use like an IKEA manual, looking quizzically from it to the art and back again.
- Labels that answer the stupid questions in our heads. How long did it take this artist to make this piece? Did the artist like it? What do people love about this piece? When did the artist make it in his/her career? Who’s the girl in the painting? Why is there a weird smudge of red in the corner—is that a mistake? Why did the artist decide that this side is up?
- Labels that expose the curator’s thought process. One thing I wondered about a lot at MOMA was how they decided which pieces of art to put next to each other. Was it about color? Diversity? Space? I also wonder about how they choose frames for paintings, and the biggest question, how they decide which pieces to include at all. Is there some wacky donor behind it? Or something a curator advocated for against all odds? I loved the story I heard about how complex it was to house a painting that had been painted in chocolate. How about the challenges of putting up controversial pieces?
- Labels that tell contextualized stories and involve visitors. Both 2) and 3) above are really about this. At MOMA, sometimes I listened to the “teenager” and “kids” audio and enjoyed it more than the “adult” selections. When producing for/by kids, there was more of an emphasis on giving the feel of the piece—with music, stories about the artist, comments about other art the artist produced—and those context clues helped me step into the art more emotionally. Also, the teen selections often featured teenagers interviewing visitors about their reactions to the pieces. I loved that. Just hearing other people share their impressions stimulated reactions of my own. They gave me voices to discuss with and helped me start interacting with the piece.