Art and Gossip

Veronese, “Happy Union” from the Allegory of Love
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.

6 thoughts on “Art and Gossip

  1. This post resonates with me, as a musician and sometime student of musicology. I know nothing about art history, but since the arrival of “New Musicology” in the 1980s there has been a great deal of uneasiness among musicologists with any reference to “the music itself”, which is seen by some as an uncomfortably formalist notion. Richard Taruskin gives one of the most direct expressions of this point of view in an article titled ‘The Poietic Fallacy’, which contains the following declaration:

    “I further confess that as a professional musician with decades of composing, performing, teaching, and listening experience, I have no idea what that thrice-familiar tautology — ‘to listen to music as music’ — means”.

    In the same essay, Taruskin defines the fallacy of the title as “the conviction that what matters most … in a work of art is the making of it”, and asserts that the end result of this attitude is the reduction of criticism to “artists’ shoptalk”. I personally dislike this kind of extreme skepticism about musical works ‘in themselves’ intensely, although I suppose it was once a necessary corrective to older orthodoxies.

    The best example I know of the kind of approachable musical analysis which I think this post suggests is still D. F. Tovey’s lectures and writings from the early twentieth century; but that kind of writing is seen as incredibly old-fashioned (at best) by most musicologists. Among more recent critics, Alex Ross is probably the best at connecting subjective experience to particular musical details, though there is still less nitty-gritty analysis in his writing than you would find in the old, discredited books on “music appreciation”.

  2. Part of this I think is the overall tendency in the West to romanticize individual thinkers and artists with the attending assumption nowadays to feel that great works themselves are somehow inaccessible to common people. (I used to work at a bookstore and I repeatedly got the sense from people that Dostoevsky was for “intellectuals” and not for them.) Another point is simply that gossip is more accessible to people, and museums and orchestras are mostly just trying to boost attendance. The fashion and Impressionism exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago last summer had tourist trap written all over it, but it was also a really, really good show. These kinds of missed opportunities are legion.

  3. I didn’t make it to that exhibit, but it struck me as a near genius-level attempt to bridge accessibility/pandering and the need to deliver actual content and knowledge.

  4. I had a similar experience at an exhibition at the National Gallery last year. The lack of interest in the aesthetic features of the paintings extended beyond the gallery itself to the exhibition catalogue, which was almost entirely concerned with what the paintings told us about turn-of-the-century Viennese society. This fails even in its own terms, because, in addition to not telling us much about the artworks themselves, trying to do history using only a small number of paintings as your sources is likely to be pretty bad history. You don’t get much beyond “in this picture, someone is wearing a hat, so we can conclude that people in Vienna wore hats.”

  5. I was at the Art Gallery of Ontario a few months back and had a similar kind of experience that seemed to cut the other way. Alain de Botton had mini-exhibits set up throughout the gallery. Each featured artwork was accompanied by his own vacuous reflections on how it could help us “feel better” about categories of love, sex, politics, money and nature. The whole thing seemed like a farce: there was a screen in each mini-exhibit that featured his talking head, in some cases larger than the paintings themselves. Another way to bypass the artwork, but this time in the name of therapy.

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