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« Moleskine Videos | Main | England R.I.P.? »

April 16, 2007

Are Captions Harmful?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Boston's Isabella Stuart Gardner (1840-1924) could be eccentric and opinionated. But she easily got away with it because she had gobs of money.

Her legacy is the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum (also see here) in the Fenway area not far from the Museum of Fine Arts.

Gardner was able to ironclad (how's that for making a verb from an adjective, folks!) things so that all works had to remain placed as she had dictated. Moreover, if a work had no caption, no future captioning would be allowed.

I can't find a link to support this (sorry!), but I did read someplace that Gardner believed that captions could distract from the viewing and appreciation experience. So, while most works have information plaques, some do not in order to force viewers to appreciate art unaided.

I was ignorant of this when I visited the museum a few years ago. I became puzzled and a little frustrated when I couldn't even find out who painted a painting and when it was done.

[Pause for reflection]

In theory I'm inclined to agree with her.

When I'm zipping through the Louvre or any museum with more than half a dozen galleries, I tend to glance at the caption plaques to catch the name of the artist. So if I see "Umbriago"* rather than "Tiepolo," I'm likely to keep on zipping. It's brand-consiousness: an Aston-Martin versus Daewoo thing. (What I just described does not mean that I never pay attention to works by artists I'm not familiar with. A really stunning painting can indeed grab my attention. But it does have to be literally "stunning.")

If Gardner thought this focus on the artist distracted from focusing on the merits of the work, then she was right if my behavior is any guide.

On the other hand, when there is nothing said about a painting and it's one that I think merits further attention, I would have no way of discovering more unless a museum guard or gallery guide was there to help. Frustrating! (Did I mention that I hate frustration?)

So I think there ought to be a caption for each work with name-rank-serial number type stuff: basic facts. Or, failing that, a small guide sheet listing what's on each gallery wall for reference.

What can be safely dispensed with are extended captions -- especially interpretive ones. These run a strong risk of imposing invalid concepts in the minds of viewers. This potential for danger is more acute nowadays than in the past thanks to the politicization of the arts and intellectual fads such as deconstructionism in art criticism. See Roger Kimball's The Rape of the Masters for examples of this.

Such styles of criticism tend to impute meanings to paintings that might never have occurred to the artist. Not that the artist even needed to know. After all, he was little more than an puppet of the culture and power structure of his time, the theories usually contend.

I think this is tangential to the art at best, and usually silly. And even if the artist was attempting a political statement, after a few centuries such issues are mostly on the boneyard of historical scholarship, of interest to specialists only.

What counts in the long run is the work of art as such -- or so I think. 2Blowhards readers are unlikely to find many cases where I attempt detailed analyses of paintings. Viewing a painting is a visual experience, not a literary or verbal one. I'm willing to mention technical considerations, the influence of other artists and even economics. But not more often than absolutely necessary.

Where do you stand regarding supplying information to museum-goers? With Isabella Stuart Gardner? With minimalist captions? Or do you see no real harm in going whole-hog, offering viewers as complete an educational experience as possible.



* "Umbriago" is an in-joke for all who used to listen to Jimmy Durante's radio show back in the 1940s. For the rest of you, it's not really that important to know.

posted by Donald at April 16, 2007


You hit on the exact right word in interpretive. I can interpret for myself, thank you very much, when I'm standing in front of a picture. What I do feel the lack of is information on technique. How did Rubens impart such life to flesh? How did Vermeer achieve total clarity in paint; what was his step by step methodology? How did Turner achieve such effects of light and air? All these technical questions have been thoroughly studied. Why not place plaques - not necessarily in immediate juxtaposition to a particular painting but at the entry to a gallery containing several examples of a particular artist's work - that give detailed explanations of how the work was made. And, above all, let them not be infantile. Let them employ language that asks something of the public. In that way, maybe, someone will be stretched to learn.

Posted by: ricpic on April 16, 2007 8:24 PM

10 min ago I came across this place in EM Forster's A room with a view:

"Of course, it was a wonderful building [Santa Croce in Florence-TE]. [...] of course, it contained frescoes by Giotto, in the presence of of whose tactile values she was capable of feeling what was proper. But who was to tell her which they were? She walked about disdainfully, unwilling to be enthusiastic over monuments of uncertain authorship or date. There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and transepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr.Ruskin."

Posted by: Tatyana on April 17, 2007 8:27 AM

I completely agree with your judgement that it's the work that's important. $100 art attached to a $2,000,000 signature makes me grit my teeth. (And my dentist says that's a bad thing.)

The whole Antiques Roadshow view of quality irritates me to no end. A badly made chair doesn't become a well-made chair simply by being 300 years old. And a signature never improves art.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 17, 2007 1:05 PM

I think minimal information about the artist and date is the LEAST they could do. A very odd mindset, that the long-dead artist whose work one is admiring is not deserving of having his name known to us. As if they were just the "help"- what contempt, to deprive them of recognition.

Besides, the crazy old bat is dead. Screw her, give the artists their due. Lol.

Posted by: Southamptoner on April 17, 2007 4:28 PM

In the case offered, I'm with ISG. The totality of her created environment could, and should, be viewed as a singular work of (assemblage? installation?) art. There are any number of books and publications, some no doubt available at the museum, which detail the various objects and their provenance.

For museums or galleries I prefer discreet, minimal labels with artist, title, date, media and perhaps some indication of the object's initial patron, use or whatnot. (e.g. Picasso, Pablo, Portrait of Gertrude Stein, .... , done as a gift for .... or done in Paris ....)

Aesthetically, I don't like labels at all.

Posted by: Chris White on April 17, 2007 7:42 PM

Donald, funny you mentioned this. I was at the incredible Boston MFA and stumbled upon a great painting by John White Alexander .

Turns out I will be able to use it as an illustration for my upcoming ebook, and one of the reasons is the backstory--the painting is about a poem by Keats about a woman's fidelity to her dead lover (not immediately apparent to the viewer).

I don't dispute with your position generally. When I go museuming, I generally stroll through each room without looking at any of the captions, and then only if I'm really curious, will I hone in.

Allegorical meaning and historical context of a painting are invaluable; but they freeze an interpretation in your mind. The painting I linked to it is not limited to the Keats poem, but once we know the secret, that heightens my apprecation of the work.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on April 17, 2007 10:28 PM

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