Does Great Art Speak for Itself?
We are often told great art speaks for itself. In practice, though, helping visual art find an audience usually requires a skillful narrative. How should we understand this use of storytelling, and who does it best? Does surging interest in contemporary art present special opportunities and responsibilities for developing appreciative audiences? What are key strategies and challenges in a time when arbiters of creative value — including museums and auction houses — serve constituents across the spectrum of artists, viewers, buyers and the larger public realm?
Wall texts that explain a piece of art are a relatively new sight in museums, says Kate D. Levin, panel moderator and principal at Bloomberg Associates. And although they’ve been hailed as a democratizing force in institutions that were previously seen as oppressively esoteric, others in the art world think that truly great art shouldn’t need explanation or contextualization. Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, explains how his museum decides how to annotate its exhibits:
The patrons of the Pérez Art Museum Miami don’t fit the mold of usual art museum regulars, says museum director Franklin Sirmans. With that in mind, Sirmans sees his role to create exhibits that move beyond an assumption of patent meaning or depth in the works of art:
Of course Sirmans wants his patrons to have that “a-ha” moment when they see a particularly impactful piece of art. But he also wants to bring art to everyone, including people for whom art isn’t a language they speak well. He sees power in using art museums as a place for dialogue, not just as a place to experience art for art’s sake.
Big IdeaWe want to take advantage of the [art museum] being a space for dialogue, for conversation. A place that can have the kind of conversations that don’t happen in other places in the world.Franklin Sirmans
Art collectors play a very specific gatekeeping role in determining what is and isn’t great art in the popular imagination. If artists are reliant on sales for their livelihoods, then their livelihoods are at the mercy of the tastes of art collectors. According to Allan Schwartzman, chairman of Global Fine Arts for Sotheby's, we are living in an era of profuse art collection. Wealth is getting more consolidated, and a large cadre of art collectors is emerging that sees art collection as an investment more than an appreciative endeavor. Schwartzman says that it’s having profound effects on the art world.
Big Idea[Valuable art] is becoming more defined by the opinion of a small group of influential people within the marketplace rather than through a more complex network of interpreters that’s existed in the past.Allan Schwartzman
Using art as an investment strategy is chilling the ability of many artists to take creative risks. If they create art that this new generation of collectors think won’t hold value, they are in danger of not selling their artwork at the prices they need to sustain themselves.
Retail spaces in museums, more interactive exhibits, edgier subject matter — art museums are adapting to the zeitgeist of the 21st century. But what effect does that have on how people experience the art itself, and should we be welcoming these changes? Franklin Sirmans weighs in: