Should we simplify everything we write?

In my last article, I discussed the idea of keeping it simple and speaking to your audience within the context of a historical site or museum.  This week, I’d like to look at writing text for art exhibits, which is a more difficult task because art itself is so much more subjective than historical events.  But that also begs the question: do we need to simplify everything we write?

When people look at art, they can experience it on two different levels:  what it says to them personally, and perhaps, what the artist wants them to hear. But how do you connect the feelings of the period, the emotional state of the artist, and the work itself so the visitor understands what they are looking at?

Let’s go back to my core belief about communication:  you have to meet people where they are, not where you think they should be.  The language you choose to describe a work of art can mean the difference between visitors getting a new appreciation for your collection or leaving the museum frustrated.

To illustrate this point, I’d like to share two texts that describe Pablo Picasso’s Portrait of Fernande Olivier painted in 1909.  The painting hangs in one of my favourite museums – the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. The text below is from the information panel on the wall. This is also the text accompanying the image online.

Picasso and his mistress Fernande Olivier spent the summer of 1909 in the mountains outside Saragossa. In the painting, Fernande’s countenance emerges from the barren scenery. In the words of Ernst Holzinger, Städel director from 1938 to 1972: “The hills and gorges of this facial landscape are tension-charged, the ridges, surfaces, angles of crystalline conciseness.” The painting is among the key works of Analytical Cubism, which disintegrates the self-contained forms of the objects depicted in favour of an autonomous formal rhythm.

The next text is also from the Städel, but this time it’s from the Städel app, which gives the user a choice of seeing the texts in English, German, French, or Spanish.  While it gives the same basic information, the wording has been edited and simplified.

“Everything in art is based on the sphere, cone, and cylinder.”  This programmatic statement by the painter Paul Cézanne was ground-breaking for Cubism, a style developed to a decisive degree by Pablo Picasso.  The portrait of Fernande Olivier, considered a key work of Analytical Cubism, is composed of geometric forms.  With broad brushstrokes, Picasso breaks the picture down into patches of colour, his palette making no distinction between the figure and the landscape.  His lover’s face merges chromatically with its surroundings.

Both are intended to help the visitor understand what they are looking at.  When I read the first text, I have a really hard time connecting the words to the painting.  I also wonder why they were quoting Ernst Holzinger.  I respect that he was the museum’s director for more than three decades, but why is his opinion or explanation worth posting on the wall? And what are “angles of crystalline conciseness”?  I have absolutely no idea what that means.

By contrast, I completely understand the second text.  The quote is relevant and helps me see how Picasso blended the face of his lover with the surrounding landscape.

I wondered if it was just me, or did others have as much difficulty with the first text as I did.  To test this, I ask friends to participate in an anonymous online survey to measure how well people understood each one.  This survey wasn’t particularly scientific, and only 36 people participated.  But the results were interesting.

When asked about the first text 58% understood the text completely, while 42% either didn’t understand it or were unsure.

When I asked about the second text, a full 78% understood it completely.

That’s pretty significant.  The second text gave the same basic information, but in a much easier way, and without “dumbing it down.”

One of the arguments in support of more difficult texts is that most museum visitors are educated people.  However, in my survey, 70% of respondents had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Of those who left comments, one said she appreciated the more difficult text because it made her think.  However, several others (including two PhDs) said that while they understood the first text, they had to work at it.  And who wants to do that?

Do you even need interpretive text for art?

That is a legitimate question.  Some curators believe that the only information visitors should be given is who created the piece, when, and with what.  These curators believe the public can and should interpret the artwork without outside influence.

This is the route MoMa (the Museum of Modern Art in New York) decided to take with their Picasso Sculpture exhibit in 2016.  Rather than labels, the museum gave each visitor a brochure with basic information about each piece.  Art historian Christopher Jones described this minimalist approach as an experience where visitors could see the art as  “personal responses, connections and reflections,” and one in which the gallery, “becomes a dynamic arena, where meaning unfolds as different visitors enter and offer their responses.”  Yet he also agrees that, without interpretation, art could end up with no meaning at all.

The idea of having no interpretative texts is an interesting idea for people who are used to analysing art in a critical way.  I am not one of those people.  While I can enjoy a piece of artwork simply for what it is – something beautiful or interesting to look at – I really want the backstory.  What was happening, either in society or in the life of the artist, when this piece was created?  What made them choose this subject and depict it the way they did?

One memorable exhibit that did just that Splendor & Misery in the Weimar Republic, which was shown at the Schirn Museum in Frankfurt in 2017.

What made this exhibit so great was that the curator met me where I was.  She made no assumption about what I knew or didn’t know about the period, the artists, or the issues of the day.  Instead, she put it all on easy-to-read interpretive panels.

The importance of these panels can be highlighted by a painting entitled Margot, created by Rudolf Schlichter in 1924.  It’s a portrait of a respectable looking middle-aged lady with bobbed hair and very conservative clothes. She is standing outside with one hand on her hip and a cigarette in the other.  She looks confident, but otherwise quite unremarkable.  Then you read the text:

With the utmost naturalness, Margot makes her appearance. Her exterior actually gives away nothing of the way she makes a living. Her short hair is in line with the fashion of the day. Her modest clothing – white blouse and dark skirt – is functional. The whore appears like the best buddy. Only the make-up, usually worn for everyday purposes only by prostitutes or actresses, could give us a hint.

This panel, in my opinion, is brilliant.  The wording teased me into looking at the painting again.  It also shocked me. I had no idea that when it was painted only actresses and prostitutes wore makeup during the day, nor did I know about the desperation that forced respectable women like Margot into prostitution just to feed their families.  When I walked into the Schirn that evening, the 1920s for me meant flappers, Fitzgerald, and emerging feminism.  I had a totally different perspective when I walked out.

I was so excited by what I had experienced at the museum, I went home to see if I could find more information online.  Luckily, the museum had an online “digitorial, ”as well as an article in the Schirn Magazine.  Like the exhibit, these pieces were not only well researched, but they were also written in a very accessible way.  I read every single word of it and am now excited to learn more about the art of the 1920s, particularly in Germany.

And to me, that’s what the museum experience should be about – getting people excited about your subject matter so they want to learn more.

Laura Marshallsay, owner and founder of Marshallsay English, is a public historian and Business English teacher. 

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