Rant 53: Should art speak louder than words?

Rant 53: Should art speak louder than words? Lesley Guy, Positive Thinking, 2013. Pencil and poster paint on squared paper. 29cm x 42cm. Credit: Julian Lister

Interpretation panels, they seem to polarise audiences in a similar way to Marmite! Tate Britain has recently removed a large majority of their labelling, potentially setting a trend towards reduced interpretation in galleries. In light of this Chris Sharratt discusses the success and failures of those less than innocent pieces of text.


What is art if not a form of communication, a way to say something that cannot be said using language alone? 

Great art speaks for itself. 

It requires our undivided attention and an open yet critical mind, but apart from that it needs no explanation for it to convey its message. 

Of course galleries don’t always exhibit great art. 

Often it is mediocre, the message unclear and the end result uncompelling. 

However much undivided attention we give, it fails to do what all the best art should – to make us think about the who, what and why of our lives and the world around us.

This failure to deliver is, in a way, all part of the dialogue of contemporary art. 

Communicating ideas isn’t easy – better to try and fail than to not try at all. 

Yet there is another dialogue that so often accompanies bad art, and which is far harder to forgive – the interpretation text penned by the artist/curator/gallery staff.

Done well, this can add context and background information that enhances the gallery experience. 

Yet far too often it acts as a smokescreen, a roll-call of art-speak gobbledegook that baffles rather than enlightens.

There is, I think, a pattern to this; the more lightweight the concept, the greater the tendency towards obscuration. 

It’s as if the writer is trying to convince themselves that there are hidden depths in the shallow ideas set before them. 

Big words and complex sentence structures are offered up as some kind of validation. 

If you don’t get it, well, you just don’t get it.

Text like this is worse than useless – it just gets in the way of our experience and wastes paper. 

It’s always better to let the art do the talking than obscure the picture.


Contributed by Chris Sharratt

Chris Sharratt is a freelance writer and editor based in Glasgow. Twitter: @chrissharratt


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