Art For Everyone? The Interpretation Matters Handbook — Reviewed

The Interpretation Matters Handbook -- Reviewed

Dany Louise goes head-to-head with wordy, confusing and alienating ‘artspeak’, finds Aoife Robinson, and as a result, gives us the confidence to take control of our gallery experiences…

‘X’s creative act of dissolution combines stillness and the intimation of motion, leading us to the very edge of identifiable form and playfully subverting minimalist concerns…’

Confused? You should be. This is a real piece of gallery interpretation taken from a British Arts Council-funded institution, and is just one example of interpretation gone wrong in the recently released Interpretation Matters Handbook: Artspeak Revisted. Most people are confused by the text accompanying the art in our galleries — it’s safe to say that only a very small percentage of the population are art experts, and a sentence like that could confuse even the most experienced of art historians. Too often art interpretation is wordy, confusing and alienating, having the opposite effect of what was originally intended: a clear and meaningful reading of art.

Arts researcher and founder Dany Louise has been advocating clear interpretation for years, in fierce retaliation to ‘artspeak’: artistic terminology, as demonstrated above, that actively works to alienate the reader by overcomplicating content. The opening example I’ve used here, found in the first section of the handbook, summarises the impositions of the art world on a larger scale. The shamed gallery, funded by the Arts Council whose raison d’être ’champions, develops and invests in artistic and cultural experiences that enrich people’s lives’ is, in my opinion, contradictory through failing to engage audiences. Louise asks us to consider the enormous potential interpretative resources have on widening audiences just by communicating more clearly.

“Whilst there are now more attempts than ever to engage through the use of art labels, Louise shows that they are often tenuously over-written”

The Interpretation Matters Handbook is, by all accounts, a physical contribution to Louise’s Interpretation Matters online project. In the first section, Louise effectively demonstrates why we need clearer interpretation by defining the seven problems of art writing as she sees it: excessive information, artspeak, sub-clauses, dumbing down, gaps in information, nonsense writing and, finally, Dead White Male Syndrome (i.e. boring information). The book features interviews with artists on how their works have been textually represented; discussions with curators regarding the different methods that institutions are beginning to employ; and the evolution of how information is relayed — all interspersed with remarks from members of the public, although I was both surprised and disappointed not to find more input from this final group.

The chapters offered by different experts from the sector illustrate the current procedures and debate in interpretation. From Tate Liverpool’s word clouds to the wordless Tate Britain, we are shown the different motivations behind the procedures. Beneath these, Louise highlights the continuing elitist ideals of the sector dating back from the 20th century. In the Curatorial Balance chapter, she describes a ‘crisis of authority in museums’, which has evolved from neglecting the public’s interests in terms of what they’d genuinely enjoy and relate to, instead opting for ‘high art’ exhibitions. The result was an isolated audience and an institution reluctant to relinquish its control as gatekeeper to its collections. Whilst there are now more attempts than ever to engage through the use of art labels, Louise shows that they are often tenuously over-written; pointing to a label from the 2012 Liverpool Biennial:

‘Notions of distance, local matter in global circulation and the fluidity of ocean waters inform and encapsulate the work that takes form as printed material.’

“General audiences are still ‘on their own’ in galleries. To overcome this, we need to demystify artspeak”

The artwork in question was, in Louise’s words, ‘conceptual and visually uninteresting’ – a shallow water tank with ‘paper drowned’ in it.  Louise shows that the writer has overcomplicated and over intellectualised the work and, as a result, the reader is left feeling both confused and at fault for failing to understand. She argues that whilst there’s been a considerable ‘cross-over’ of the public and private spheres, general audiences are still ‘on their own’ in galleries. To overcome this, we need to demystify artspeak.

Louise goes on to investigate how advances in the gallery-audience relationship now also have to deal with other difficulties, such as ‘destination marketing’ (whereby the cultural offers of a city are paraded to entice visitors; I would liken this to the International Festival of Business’s (IFB) summer takeover in Liverpool last year, hosting an insincere interest in arts activities), and working with biennials (feigned as public facing when really, Louise says, these shows tend to be interested in appealing to art high profilers, ‘their own status and professional ambitions’). According to Louise, the only way, it seems, to remove exclusivity is to reshape art displays from an elitist sub-sector into an accommodating and democratic arena for all to enjoy. This is a point that I completely agree with.

“Louise’s altruistic desire to re-establish art as meaningful relies on re-establishing the ability of art to connect with and engage audiences”

Louise’s altruistic desire to re-establish art as meaningful relies on re-establishing the ability of art to connect with and engage audiences. Louise believes that the point of interpretation is to provide a greater understanding of the art work, because ‘no-one can hope to know and understand everything they see and experience’ in a museum or gallery. This inclusivity allows everyone to respond to works and promote a more positive, non-hierarchical model. Acknowledging variable expertise, she suggests that a dialogue should be just that, and not relying on specialized knowledge or making sense of something that would otherwise be completely disconnected to our lives.

With this reasoning, I found her hypothetical articles slightly odd, although her message was still clear: statements such as ‘His collateral show in the Venice Bienniale in 2013, was widely praised for its playful subversion of sculptural medians, and polemical championing of the ordinary and banal’ are useless, and have no place or purpose in art writing.

“The Interpretation Handbook certainly encourages hesitant viewers to become more actively involved in art”

Despite questioning divisionary politics and internalised networks (‘why are openings still called private views?’) Louise would present a more convincing argument by including more interviews with the general public. She personally admits that even in her case, as an arts graduate, researcher and professional writer, ‘the more interpretative help the better’. I found that the book lacked conversations with ‘non-experts’: or those that haven’t got a degree in Fine Art. More interviews with the wider public would have certainly improved on interpretations failings.

Bad interpretation is isolating but the visitor experience can be improved in a number of ways and so, in my opinion, Louise is herself offering a closed-book approach. Relying too heavily on interpretation, however carefully written, could be as isolating as artspeak. Louise’s argument would be more convincing if she permitted visitors the freedom to enter into a debate offered by text and artwork, beyond a step-by-step gallery guide. Art interpretation is a reaction; and each of us will have a different experience and insight.

However, I believe that The Interpretation Handbook certainly encourages hesitant viewers to become more actively involved in art, to confront what they find uncomfortable and to enter into conversation — rather than disregarding works based on unfamiliarity or unconventional qualities. Louise’s biggest strength is her conviction that art is for everyone and, by overcoming the shortcomings of artspeak, we can make it more easily available to wider audiences. Recognising varying levels of understanding does not devalue the experience of an artwork but emphasises the human dimension to art: reinforcing relevancy, allowing personal associations and interpretations, enriching involvement and overcoming unfair subdivisions within audiences more successfully. Jessica Hoare, who contributes to the book, supports this idea of a ‘creative exchange’, although admits that it can rely on maintained funding and staff training, a completely separate issue within The Visitor Experience.

The Interpretation Matters Handbook: Artspeak Revisited reflects exciting and changing attitudes towards audience engagement by fashioning more wide-ranging content, educative incentives and re-emphasising personal connections with works. Interpretation is an instrument that makes art more readily available, by emphasising the worthwhile investment of creative education to make art more accessible. Art can, and should, be enjoyed by all, irrespective of prior knowledge, and Louise’s handbook offers an entertaining and playful introductory perspective into the advantages of interpretational content.

Aoife Robinson

The Interpretation Matters Handbook: Artspeak Revisited is available now in paperback from Black Dog Publishing – £15 per copy plus postage and packing (1st Class Royal Mail recorded delivery). Order your copy by emailing talk@interpretationmatters. com


Further reading: The Guardian’s Users Guide to Artspeak; Triple Canopy’s International Art English… and the Arty Bollocks Generator

Posted on 24/07/2015 by thedoublenegative