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On Unhelpful Curatorial Statements

October 26, 2012

I quite often find myself wishing that curatorial statements could be excised from the walls of art museums. Or that they could be less pretentious.

This feeling struck me palpably last week while I was visiting The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) for the first time during a trip to the East Coast.

One of my favorite parts of the museum was the huge, lofty room containing The Cartographer's Conundrum, a multi-media installation by the New York-based artist Sanford Biggers.

The installation is jaw-droppingly beautiful and strange. Colorful church pews at one end of the room appear to be taking off from the ground, transported perhaps by an explosion of pipe organ pipes and other musical instruments that make up some sort of dais in front of them. The floor is covered in cracked mirrors cut into star shapes. The Autumn light floods the room, causing the transparent colors in the pews and window panes to glow and the stars to sparkle.

When I first explored the room, I felt like I was in a magical space. I found my own meaning in the colors, musical motifs and quasi-religious architecture. What spoiled the experience -- and this happens all too often when I visit a modern art museum -- was the description of the artwork on the wall. 

"...Sanford Biggers' goal is to both study and expand the emerging genre of Afrofuturism, which engages science-fiction, cosmology and technology to create a new folklore of the African Diaspora while simultaneously illuminating the underrepresented career of master painter and muralist John Biggers..."

The text went on. And on. In a similar vein.

Suddenly the magic of Biggers' installation evaporated and I was left with nothing but a crude, academic summary of the work that did nothing to enhance the experience for me. I wish I hadn't read it at all.


  • What an idiot

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At October 26, 2012 at 4:53 PM  

  • I've thought about this many times; curatorial statements nearly always distract or annoy me. People: When you finish university, it's time to stop writing papers.

    But you know what can be worse? Artists' statements.

    To me, the threshold for whether and how much to explain a work of art needs to be very high. Historical context, yes; influences and relationships to other artists and works, sure; etc. At root, I think what's really going on here is that the curator wants to be more visible--and in fact, they (like movie or web producers) do have a huge role in shaping the show without necessarily getting credit for it. That being the case, perhaps what museums ought to do is create a display of the people behind the exhibit.


    By Blogger Jeremy Adam Smith, At October 26, 2012 at 6:00 PM  

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