This weekend, I had the opportunity to go to the big Veronese exhibit at the National Gallery in London, the largest collection of Veronese’s paintings ever assembled outside Italy. For this unique occasion, I did something I normally don’t — I shelled out for the audio guide. It was generally serviceable, and even if the content could’ve been conveyed just as easily in writing, I saw the advantage of being able to look at the painting at the same time as I listened (rather than having to go back and forth from the text on the wall). I felt a strange dissatisfaction, however, which was encapsulated in the fact that only on the commentary for the second to last painting did they mention brushstrokes. We were to understand that Veronese’s technique had changed in some way, and yet our attention had never been drawn to his technique previously (aside from his preference for certain characteristic colors and his skill in portraying elaborate fabrics).
I don’t want to single out this audio guide, because it’s a pervasive problem: the guidance provided for the general public in art museums relatively rarely directs our attention to the actual artwork itself. We learn a great deal about the artist’s life, about the circumstances of the work’s composition, about the representative content of the work, about the various schools or movements it may belong to. What I came here to see is the artwork, and I’m bombarded by facts about everything but the artwork.
The situation is similar when one goes to the symphony — your average program notes will contain 90% biographical information and 10% description of the musical content you’re about to hear. For instance, I once went to a concert featuring Walton’s first symphony, a relatively unknown work. The program notes told me all about how much he procrastinated on it and how it was apparently inspired by a turbulent love affair. I’ve listened to the piece many times, and I can assure you that you cannot hear anything about a love affair in it. What you hear is a bunch of music. Indeed, that’s why I came to the symphony, to hear music — and so why can’t the program notes help me to listen more intelligently to it?
The motivation behind these kinds of supplemental materials is to make art and music more relatable or accessible, but in practice, they cut off our access and fail to train us in how to actually talk with one another about what we’re seeing and hearing. We know all about van Gogh’s tortured life and can discuss that, but then we already knew how to talk about biography and suffering — what we probably don’t know is how to talk about the actual painting in front of us. Everyone knows that Beethoven went deaf, but when we venture to talk about it, it seems as though we’re deaf to the actual music he’s given us.
I don’t think it’s a matter of giving us access to technical terminology, because we all know what a line and a color is, and the majority of technical terminology for music consists in the Italian terms for fairly straightforward concepts (louder, softer, slowing down, etc.). Nor do I want to disallow biographical, historical, or representational information. Nor, most of all, do I want to leave people to wallow in the solipsism of their “personal experience” of the artwork — what I want is to provide tools that will allow people to actually talk about the artwork with one another, to draw one another’s attention to its features and effects so that we can all help each other to see and hear better.