Sunday, February 3, 2013

The labels

A colleague of mine lately wondered whether, when (with luck) it manages to be serviceable or even good, the prose style of art museum curators falls short of the higher requirements of fiction because our vision is so often focused on things and not people. “Come, come,” I objected. “Our things are almost always made by people, used by people, shuffled back and forth from person to person. We write for real visitors, and the dots we try to join for them are invariably human.” He looked skeptical, and, to be honest, I think I know what he meant. It is increasingly unusual to pick up an exhibition catalogue and feel that the prose style of the essays and entries is worthy of the beautiful objects that they seek to illumine. It may even be the height of pomposity or presumption to hope that our more or less utilitarian words can ever live up to the quality of the corresponding works of art. Jargon is a problem, and so is longwindedness—in which I too often specialize. Even so, I have always approached the task of writing about art with some care and considerable aspiration, largely self-imposed. “This will do” is not in my vocabulary. The wall label, that most devious of genres, is necessarily brief. It must be as clear as crystal, and stimulate the shy, spotty kid, the professor emeritus, and everyone in between. There is no hope of making more than two or three basic points without overcrowding. I generally try to make at least one of these surprising, and reveal to our visitors a fact, even a trivial one, that would otherwise almost certainly not be apparent, and might cause them to see the work of art in a new light. Technical matters require delicate handling, which is, I think, one reason why we tend to avoid them. Yet it is certainly possible to allude clearly and succinctly in our labels to issues of studio practice or now-forgotten methods of manufacture. Indeed over the years I have found that our visitors generally appreciate these, and even tell me so. We are foolish to think that this sort of writing does not exercise the imagination, and impose upon us the high demands of English prose style. Yet I fear there are labels that fawn, labels that condescend, and labels that scream with dullness. There are labels that presume almost infinite knowledge, and labels that address our visitors as if they are ignorant seven year-olds. There are labels that purr repellently with self-importance. There are labels that badger and nag. There are labels that are shrill in their cheerfulness, and labels that would seem to have been drafted for internal circulation by a blind actuary. There are labels that swagger; labels that boast; labels that snigger, scold, or prevaricate; labels that sit determinedly on fences. Some labels are too bossy, too chatty, or too starchy. Some labels cause you indigestion; others send the visitor empty away. Some drip with the haughty disapproval of some obsolete matter of social usage; others (my own included) tend to embrace these with too much glee. What is a spat, a lorgnette, a pince-nez, or a chignon? Why should we care? I suppose the answer to that query is that behind each, and in this order, was a gentleman’s foot, a pair of deteriorating eyes, a nose with little indentations at either side of the bridge, or the skull of a woman, all long dead. And there can be no harm in nudging our visitors towards a little rumination about the habits of life that made such things useful or merely decorative in the first place, for before too long all of us will cease to need them also. Art and the cycles of life and death are indivisible; why then should we not see ourselves as budding novelists? And now I must go out and buy some toothpaste.

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