#museumpractices: The Museum On My Mind, Part II

Wall labels. Curatorial text. Provenance. Titles (or un-titles, as the case may be). At what point do the words surrounding an artwork serve the work, and at what point do they disrupt it? In terms of the museum, specifically, when do explanatory labels benefit museum-goers, and when do they detract from an individual’s experience? This week, #Hashtags features Part II of The Museum On My Mind, a meditation on the role of museum commentary and what it means to “know” a piece of art. Click here for a refresher on Part I.

Part II: Writing on Water

Famous for using chance operations to compose both musical scores and visual art, John Cage’s goal was not to manifest a “gratuitous” randomness,[1] but to put “the intention of the mind . . . out of operation.”[2] For Cage, non-intention was not unintentional: “If you work with chance operations, you’re basically shifting—from the responsibility to choose . . . to the responsibility to ask.”[3] Cage was influenced by the “whispered truths,” three principle tenets from one school of Zen Buddhism, including, “[Y]our action should be as though you were writing on water. . . . In other words, not to make an impression.”[4] Simple as the principles are, they signal the fundamental endlessness, evanescence, and wholeness that we camouflage with our attempts to limit, preserve, and distinguish experience.

Left: John Cage, Eninka 28, 1986; one in a series of 50 smoked and branded prints on gampi paper chine colle; 25 x 19 inches. Right: John Cage, Without Horizon 33, 1992; one in a series of 57 unique aquatints with etching and drypoint on smoked paper, 7-1/2 x 8-1/2 inches. Both published by Crown Point Press, San Francisco; courtesy of Crown Point Press.

“Writing on water,” whose activity is visible but whose product is not, suggests a method of commentary that acts as a medium rather a mediation—present but silent—and that almost invisibly carries the visitor through the exhibit. If afterward, the personal revelations of a visitor’s experience have obscured the visitor’s memory of the commentary, “commentary on water” will have achieved its goal of making no impression.

The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible

I come upon The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible III (Nickel/Neusilber), Sigmar Polke’s 1988 painting at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In my mind I see an image, but it’s really a feeling and it’s really in my gut: the expansion of the painting beyond its boundaries. Standing outside of it, I feel suddenly upon it, inside it, traveling through it. All of this happens before I come to the painting’s label.

Sigmar Polke, The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible III (Nickel/Neusilber) (1988), painting, nickel and artificial resin on canvas, 157-1/2 in. x 118-1/8 in. Photos: Saul Rosenfield, ©2012, with permission of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Labels tell me what I might expect to “discover” in the artwork: Polke’s painting is a homage to American Indian culture, evoking both the sense of support, of strength, and the invisibility, the unknowableness, honored in its source proverb; and the image is changeable, its chemical process evolving, thus, time-altering. The language is clear and gentle,[5] but would I have felt as transported had I first read the label, whose words risk displacing—or, worse, standing in for—my experience? This is how the modern art museum has taught visitors to engage art—to frame experience with interpretation—but is the experience of art truly about the words that prepare the visitor for it? If a large part of what a person knows derives from the gifts of knowledgeable others, the part most likely to stick comes from—to paraphrase Cage—the questions that each of us asks during an entirely personal quest, and the answers each discovers during that quest.[6]

Knowing is, in some ways, the destruction of what lies outside of what gets known. When I feel the feeling of knowing something, it is because my mind has eliminated alternative interpretations of that something. The danger of exhibition commentary is that it creates a domain of knowledge that precedes and limits the experience that follows. After reading a wall plaque, I face the risk that my experience of an exhibition or artwork will unwittingly take this interpretation not only as a starting point, but also as a boundary. If “art is primarily about . . . the heightening and transformation of our perceptions,”[7] a boundary, even when it encapsulates insight, threatens to limit the whole enterprise. It’s not, however, that I can simply not-know. Knowing comes unbidden, manifesting when diverse experience—feelings, thoughts—coalesces to form a single meaningful entity. But museums can resist the impulse to frontload experience, to rush the visitor—via commentary—toward that moment of knowing.

Caring as Seeing

Philosopher Martin Heidegger used the word “care” to signify, among other things, the attention that a person gives to the world. When I “care,” it means that a phenomenon has come into consciousness; and when I don’t, it means the phenomenon, as material as it is, is as good as imperceptible. Of the hundreds of perceptible objects that exist on the street I walk down or in a room as I enter, I engage—“care” about—only the ones that circumstance, desire, and intention, conspire to reveal to me. Do labels—the one adorning Polke’s Spirits or, nearby, chaperoning Julie Mehretu’s Stadia I (2004)risk making me care about, in this case, literally see, the language, the commentary, more than the object? Or, at least, do they risk making me see the curator’s conception of the object rather than my own?

Julie Mehretu, Stadia I (2004), painting, 107 in. x 140 in. x 2-3/4 in.; courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photos: Saul Rosenfield, ©2012, with permission of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Mehretu’s Stadia I—with its shifts in scale and frenzy of shape, whipping curves and stretching triangles—leaves me breathless. In the label’s text, Mehretu asserts that the painting reflects both the “nationalist reactionary energy” and “corporate language” of the stadium ecosystem. Indeed, the energy of the piece demonstrates the power of the stadium’s games to inhabit me, to make me part of the nationalist, corporate culture at which Mehretu aims. It is possible, however, to read Mehretu’s work without understanding these associations, to see it, stripped of even the commentary of its title, simply as an expression of dynamism. Does the label act to “correct” my experience—establishing the artist as the authority on her work—or does it set up a dissonance between me and the artwork, causing me to abandon the work or to engage in a dialogue with the label rather than the painting?

If Jonathan Franzen is right that one of the great fiction writing skills—particularly in the hands of a novelist like Edith Wharton—is to make me root for the most unsympathetic of characters,[8] and if I am right that labels can function similarly to help me root for the character of the artist’s work that might otherwise baffle or alarm me, my experience with Mehretu’s Stadia I suggests the reverse. It is not the artist’s work that disrupts, thus requiring the redemption of the label’s story of the artist’s intention, but the label that disrupts the artwork. Does the artist know the work better than I, as this label implies? Only if you believe Stadia I is merely an “illustration” of Mehretu’s intention or the curator’s interpretation. But if the work occupies its own “center,” to use the word Cage uses when he describes the relationship between “illustration” and “accompaniment,” the label’s narrative is best deployed at a distance—another place in the museum—where I might still benefit from Mehretu’s insight but not before benefiting from my own.[9]


Installation view of Rolywholyover A Circus at MOCA California Plaza, September 12-November 28, 1993, photo courtesy of MOCA, in the space in which visitors could consult reference materials.

This is precisely what Cage did in his own prodigious curatorial undertaking, Rolywholyover   A Circus. No labels interpreted or identified the works, but visitors could consult a map for identifying information. They could also consult “reference books by and about Cage, his interests and about the work of his contemporaries.”[10] Many of the works were rotated in and out during the exhibition’s run, so the returning visitor could not count on knowing anything about the show except its premise. Rolywholyover was Cage’s antidote to the “stultifying” structure of museum exhibitions, a word he conceived as synonymous with French composer Erik Satie’s “paralysis. “Satie said, experience is a form of paralysis. So, if you know how to do something, you paralyze yourself.”[11]

A spread from the gallery guide of Rolywholyover A Circus at MOCA California Plaza, September 12-November 28, 1993, photo courtesy of MOCA.

Many museum visitors, particularly in modern art museums, however, want the support that the Polke and Mehretu labels provide, want the museum to help them see by answering questions like the ones Gail Gregg lists in a 2010 ARTnews article: “Have I looked enough?” “How did the artist make this?” “Is this really art?”[12] Questions like these occur naturally. Labels can provide answers, but they can be responsive to the particular form of my curiosity only by accident.

If museums have, with the best of intentions, taught us to value these answers more than our own, can museums unteach this lesson? According to Julie Lazar, the curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art with whom Cage worked to develop Rolywholyover   A Circus, visitors “felt comfortable not knowing, not understanding everything,” noting that a “spirit of generosity permeated every component of [the exhibition].”[13] And museums as diverse as Houston’s Menil Collection, Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation, and San Francisco’s Pier 24 Photography minimize labels or post no commentary.[14] What else might they do?

At the de Young Museum’s The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, curators projected the faces and recorded words of actual people—including Gaultier, himself—onto mannequins wearing the designer’s clothing, achieving an integration of both commentary and spectacle into the show. Photos: Andrew Fox/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Many museums have turned to new technologies—everything from audio tours to touch screens—both to increase opportunities for commentary and to allow visitors to individualize its type, amount, and timing. Yet this development continues to foster a dependence upon a knowledge that comes from outside, from museum educators. The recent Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit[15] included mannequins with the video-projected faces of real people, wearing the designer’s fashions and convincingly spouting commentary. This approach succeeded in seamlessly weaving commentary into the fabric of the show, but its most significant achievement was to turn commentary into a spectacle that risked overshadowing the clothing it was intended to highlight.

Commentary on Water

Can museums use technology to make commentary absent? Might the simple sentences about The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible III or Stadia I, for example, be written without ink, appearing only when I choose to press a button? Would this transform the process of commentary into a conscious act of seeking rather than an automatic one of being served? Imagine a label that seeks to write itself upon water. It would include less and less of a knowledgeable curator’s interpretation, leaving only the conditions of the artist’s materials and process. Even this little summary, however, might transport me out of the experience of the work and into the experience of the words. Reading the Polke label a month after seeing the work, I appreciated the artist’s activity and ideas, and the evocation of “primordial landscapes and intergalactic space,” which resonated with my experience of the image as infinite and engulfing. But, by evading the label at the time, I avoided being derailed by the task of integrating interpretation, protecting instead the not-knowing that was paramount to my process of discovery.

What might commentary be if it were no longer tied to its former necessity? Julie Lazar suggests an answer in her description of Cage’s musical circuses: “In a Cage circus, events take place simultaneously within a single space and audience members come and go randomly. There isn’t a specific beginning, middle or end—if you can’t hear or see everything in the room, that’s okay, you can at least see and hear something of interest.”[16] The same could be said of exhibition commentary. It is better for commentary to multiply questions rather than limit them by offering answers.[17] Among the many motivations that drive us toward commentary, there is a sort of fear, a fear not simply of not-knowing, but of misunderstanding. There is no fear in Cage’s artworld—at least none of the sort whose security comes in the blanket of a label—because there is no misunderstanding. That too is a whispered truth. Does the struggle, in and of itself, to comprehend, versus the compulsion to understand, suggest a possible solution?

Rob Marks writes about the nature of the aesthetic experience and the effect of the aesthetic experience on self and society. He received master’s degrees in journalism from UC Berkeley and in visual and critical studies from the California College of Art, and is the Publications and Training Manager for the Alliance Health Project of the University of California, San Francisco. Part III of this series is upcoming.

[1]Joan Retallack, ed. Musicage: Cage Muses on Words Art Music. (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press and University Press of New England, 1996), 217. Musicage is a monumental work of reportage, a transcription of ten days of conversation between Cage and Retallack that occurred over two years. It shows both conversants to be effective interpreters of Cage’s work and philosophy.

[2]Retallack, 127.

[3]Retallack, 139. Notably, Cage says he was faithful to his chance operations: “When I find myself . . . in the position of someone who would change something—at that point I don’t change it, I change myself. It’s for that reason that I have said that instead of self-expression, I’m involved in self-alteration.”

[4]Retallack, 163.

[5]This series is not about poorly written or jargon-filled labels—there is plenty written about them. It is more pertinent to confront effective labels in order to frame the question: in its very beauty and efficacy, does commentary undermine the museum experience?

[6]This is the essence of Cage’s “tourist attitude” and its comfort with—or hunger for—wandering unarmed with prior knowledge “as though you’ve never been there before.”

[7]Retallack, 158.

[8]Jonathan Franzen, “A Rooting Interest,” New Yorker, February 13 & 20, 2012, 60.

[9]Cage says,“[I]llustration means that the center exists in another place. So an illustration is not at the center, but is about the center. Whereas with accompaniment, each one is at its own center” (Retallack, 150). Is the commentary of the label illustrating the artwork, the ostensible center of the exhibition? Or is the artwork illustrating the commentary, and is the center of the exhibition really the story that the curator seeks to narrate?

[10]MOCA Press Release, September 1993.

[11]Retallack, 142-143.

[12]Gail Gregg, “Your Labels Make Me Feel Stupid,” ARTnews, July 1, 2010, http://www.artnews.com/2010/07/01/your-labels-make-me-feel-stupid/

[13]Jeremy Millar, “Rolywholyover   A Circus: An Interview with Julie Lazar,” John Cage and Jeremy Millar, Every Day is a Good Day: The Visual Art of John Cage (London: Hayward Publishing, 2010), 46. Published on the occasion of John Cage: Every Day is a Good Day, A Hayward Touring exhibition organized in collaboration with BALTIC Center for Contemporary Art and the John Cage Trust.

[14]Gregg quotes Dominique de Menil as saying, “Perhaps only silence and love do justice to a great work of art.”

[15]The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk—organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in collaboration with the Maison Jean Paul Gaultier—ran in Montreal, Dallas, and San Francisco.

[16]Millar, 41-42.

[17]It is no coincidence that the word “rolywholyover” is from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which Cage considered the greatest literary work of the 20th century: “[Y]ou will see that it is just nonsense,” Cage said. “Why is it nonsense? So that it can make a multiplicity of sense, and you can choose your path rather than being forced down Joyce’s.” Lauren A. Wright and Helen Luckett, “Companion to Cage,” in Millar, 62.