I was listening to an old episode of one of my all-time favorite podcasts today – Wiretap, to be specific – and it included an interview with an artist whose project was living inside a plexiglass apartment in the Boston Museum of Contemporary Art for a month. Like absolutely every moment of her life on display for any wandering museum-goer. And she talked about how she did this as an exploration of transparency. The idea that was at the crux of her project was “Where there are walls, there are lies.” She said she wanted to “have the public think about what it would be like if their life was equally transparent and everyone could see what they did and would they judge their friends and neighbors” as harshly as they do now.
Fine. Good. But here’s the thing: is that what the viewing public got out of it? In the interview, the artist mentioned her artist’s statement and it made me think about how it may have colored people’s reading of the art. (You know those panels that get included in art exhibits where the artist gets to explain the driving force behind their art?) I guess I’ve always read them. (Well, that’s probably because I worked in museums for a long time, and much of that time wrote exhibit panels, so I’m a bit of a special case). But that aside, I have always read them before I viewed the art. Of course, that’s also because they’re often placed at the beginning of a gallery – a biographical statement or something to help guide the viewer’s reading of the pieces. (Actually I really hope that second part rarely plays a role, because how insulting is THAT?! That the reader, the non-artist, must require a guide to how to “see” things).
And that got me thinking “Did the public really think about the ‘walls and lies’ thing when viewing the plexiglass apartment? And did it make them reevaluate their judgments of others and reconsider their attitudes towards harsh judgmental tendencies?” Because if so, I’d hazard a bet that those ideas were colored by having read the artist statement. If they didn’t read the artist’s statement did they come away thinking something else? Like how everyday life itself is beautiful, for instance. Or how we structure our public selves differently from our private selves. And wouldn’t those readings be just as legitimate as what the artist intended the audience to think about? When you’re an artist (whether a performance artist, a sculptor, a playwright, a musician, or hey, even a writer), is the only thing you have control over the idea that you want to explore in your medium of choice, and not the audience’s reaction to that? There’s always a gap between what you think you’ve communicated and what your audience gets from it – and that gap itself is well worth some exploration (but I’ll save that for another post).
It made me think more about avoiding reading the artist’s statement when I go to another exhibition until after I’ve viewed the art, and then perhaps revisiting each piece after having read it to see if it changes how I think about the art. It also made me think about the presentation of art in online exhibitions. Many times the artist’s statement is presented either in the copy that introduces the exhibition, or comes up first in the gallery, or is used as a means of a caption for each image displayed. What comes to mind is the most recent one I’ve explored the “Artists and their Monsters” gallery on NYTimes. What if instead of having the artist mediate for me what their monster is as it does in each caption, let me work out its meaning for me on my own if I wish. I’d be curious to find unmediated exhibitions online. Ones where there is no artist’s statement provided. And no, I’m not talking about online catalogues where you can curate your own collection, but I mean ones where the works have been selected to be displayed together but where you can “opt out” of the artist’s statement if you wish. I’d be more inclined to seek those out to see if they somehow allow you to be more thoughtful about assigning your own meaning to the art and the viewing experience. If you know of any, please let me know.