O No

I think about the parts of art that other critics don’t look at; the parts around art that goes to explain art and the most obvious of these (aside from art gallery itself) are the didactic panels. Didactic panels are those bits of text beside pictures in major institutional art galleries and museums; they are didactic not just because they are educational and informative but also because they give instruction even when it is not welcome or needed. They are footnotes of an art museum.

MONA’s “O” Device is not the future of didactic panels in art galleries. There are problems with didactic panels but the “O” is not the solution, it is just another part of the problem.

I don’t think that there should be no didactic panels but there should be a lot less. Do we really need panels in art museums to explain every painting in the collection? Do we even need so many of them? All these panels of text clutter up the walls of the exhibition.

After all how much does “Madonna and child, 14th Century, Master of somewhere”, or, “Portrait of a Man”, tell the visitor. There are panels that give titles to a painting that originally had none, like Rembrandt’s “The Jewish Bride”. There is a painting in the Louvre titled “John the Baptist or Bacchus” not because the artist gave it this title but because the artist’s iconography is unclear. This is simply misleading even if it is the current fashion for all painting to have names rather than descriptions. Titles are essential to some works of art and this is why Duchamp wrote many of them on actual readymades but this doesn’t mean that they are necessary for all art.

Then there are didactic panels that use words like ‘gouache’, presuming that they are talking to an informed public. The general public would know ‘gouache’ as ‘poster paints’. It is rather like only using Latin names for animals rather than their common names.

Curators expressing their opinions on these panels are, in my opinion, unnecessary but they are simply wrong to tell me how I should think or feel about the art. Another trend is to have panels written by people other than curators, children, philosophers, anything for more panels. And along with all these didactic panels are the artist statements. If an artist’s work doesn’t speak for itself then it won’t help the artist explaining it. And artists are not, as a rule, experts in writing explanations, so artist’s statements are often very annoying to read and can alone inspire a bad review.

“Never believe what an artists says; only what he does.” Walter Sickett

The MONA’s “O” is a hand held device; basically it is an electronic room-sheet for sections of the MONA’s collection and you have to find a tiny picture of art to get the information on it. The device would have been easier to use if there were some signs to indicate what case number or what part of a gallery I was looking in but there are no signs at MONA. The electronics don’t work very well; I had to swap my device three times because this was the solution that the gallery attendant could think of to solve the problems with picking up the right room.

The electronic record of my visit on MONA’s website is the best part of the “O” but an online catalogue would be almost just as useful. The “like” or “hate” button on the “O” is as stupid and shallow as Facebook. The “O” just has more didactic text and not less which reducing my conversation with my companion and interfering with my enjoyment of the visit to MONA.

And as I wear reading glasses using the “O” was further complicated. I can still read print at arms length and I do carry my glasses in my pocket at galleries in case I want to read something, write notes or look at detail but I don’t want to walk around wearing my reading glasses because isn’t comfortable. And this added to the irritating quality of using the “O” at MONA and after half and hour of using it I just wanted to throw it away or crush it underfoot.

About Mark Holsworth

Arts administrator, artist, musician, philosopher and writer. Writes Black Mark - Melbourne Art and Culture Critic. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

2 responses to “O No

  • Martin

    But I find the shortness and lack of these panels equally irritating, I would much prefer more expansive texts and I really don’t mind if they’re didactic, as I’m always interested in what other people’s opinions are. And yes, artist’s statements are often badly written, but I often find even the bad ones interesting in terms of what their intentions were (or what they think their intentions should have been), even if they haven’t come anywhere near those intentions. I’m perfectly happy to disagree with any of the written text at an exhibition, even though at best I’m a semi-informed layperson. So I would probably enjoy using the “O”, but then nowadays, I often take off my glasses to read close text, so a reverse situation to you, we must be getting old :-)

    I’m firmly of the school, that the more information the better, as an example, when Kelly and I travelled through France and Italy looking at Roman and Renaissance art, having someone who could act as a personal tour guide and fill me in on all the intricacies of meaning they embedded in their art both deliberately and indirectly via their cultural milieu really added to my enjoyment of the art. Similarly, while I enjoy street art on its own, from reading your blog, I’ve gained added appreciation. I’ll be happy when I have my Google glasses and I can bring up an article about a particular street artist by just looking at their work on a wall. But each to their own!

  • Underwhelmed @ MONA « Black Mark

    [...] If the sensationalism of the art wasn’t enough MONA is full of curatorial caprices – cord curtains that needed to be pulled aside to see the work, niches that only a single viewer can look down, carved rocks in a fish tank and low lighting that made the art difficult to see. And I really disliked MONA’s handheld catalogue – see my earlier post O No. [...]

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