Arts writer Dany Louise explains why she thinks that good writing is key to good interpretation.
I’m a professional writer. I write about art and cultural policy for national broadsheets, magazines and websites, and I get paid to do so. I can say without false modesty that I do genuinely know about writing – techniques, language, tone, what communicates well and what doesn’t. So here is my critique of interpretative writing from the perspective of writer and critic.
I believe that writing technique matters, really matters, and that regardless of professional and academic debates, much interpretation could be improved simply by avoiding some very common mistakes and writing better. Here are three examples of interpretative writing:
“All the works in this section have one core formal concern in common: the idea of ‘time’ (and space). XX’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.”
“The theme of this year’s Biennial is “Agents of Change, Photography and the Politics of Space”. It examines how public space is constructed, controlled and contested, and the ways in which photography is implicated in these processes. Looking to recent efforts to re-imagine urban space through its occupation, BPB12 opens a series of dialogues: between professional photography and ‘citizen imagery’, grassroots activism and media spectacle; established names and recent finds; contemporary work and older photographic practices.”
“There has been much debate about what exactly is Englishness. We struggle to define it. I wanted to make something that looked like an ethnographic artefact that was about England. At once mystical and banal, this is the skull of a decaying maritime superpower.”
What do you think of these? As illuminating as the Mediteranean sun? Or clear as mud?
The top quote is a genuine example of interpretation used by an institution that is an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation. It is not selectively quoted, but a whole interpretation panel in an exhibition. As an arts professional, I can understand it and apply it to the work. To an initiated insider, it described the work on show quite well. But even so, I had to read it twice and think about what it meant. I wondered how it would come across to a visitor who hasn’t done a degree in fine art, and isn’t a curator or arts professional? I thought that they would probably find it opaque, and unlikely to genuinely help them understand or enjoy the work. For this reason, I think it could be significantly improved.
This quote, with its very particular stylistic qualities, is fairly representative of common interpretation practice in our galleries. In writing terms, it suffers from two distinct problems:
- Forcing too much information into too short a space, creating dense sentences that the reader needs to spend time unpicking and understanding.
- Artspeak and jargon. It uses a lot of language peculiar to the discipline of art, and therefore contains words and concepts that might not be understood by readers who do not know art-world language and concepts (“artspeak” for short).
The problem is in the use of language and structure, but also with the use of concepts that are not explained. A short sentence explaining Minimalism, for example, might serve as a useful reminder for those who are already familiar with it, and a helpful summary for those who have never heard of it.
The second quote is from the Brighton Photo Biennial 2012. It’s an interesting example of the difficulty of writing interpretation for two quite different audiences. It’s fairly well written, intelligent and explanatory, but also dense, impersonal and semi-academic. In many ways it is appropriate to the audience that this biennial needs to appeal to in order to gain status and credibility with its peer organisations in the art world – that is, a perceived audience of national and ideally international curators, organisations and artists concerned with the highest levels of photography practice. Because it needs to have this professional reach and ambition, it is important for it to have an aesthetically and intellectually robust curatorial framework and content. And it needs to communicate this very clearly. The “great art” of the content has to be at the forefront.
At the same time, its funders – the Arts Council and the local authority, amongst others – are keen that a show such as this should be accessible to local audiences, and enjoyed by them. “Great art for Everyone” is the Arts Council’s guiding principle, and it is the “for everyone” that the local authority might be principally concerned with. Local audiences can be very diverse: Brighton boasts a large number of ‘creatives’, has a population that is educated to higher than average levels, and a significant wealthy middle class. It also has some of the most deprived council wards in the country. How do you write interpretation to cover all these bases? And appeal to your national and international peers as well, since this is in the interests of your long-term sustainability?
I’d say that the Brighton Photo Biennial erred towards talking to the professionals first and a more general audience second; but that on balance it struck a justifiable balance between them.
Which is not to say that this piece of writing can’t be improved. It suffers from mistakes (1) and (2) as outlined above, but also:
Too many sub-clauses which affects readability and therefore ease of understanding.
Could this example have been improved if each of the “dialogues” mentioned had had at least one sentence to itself, and possibly two? One to describe the oppositional themes and another to illustrate the application of it?
The third quotation was written by the artist Grayson Perry, for his 2011/2012 British Museum show “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman“. How much clearer is this? Even without visual information, it seems more direct, informative, engaging – and therefore more effective. He had many interpretation panels with explanations and stories distributed throughout the show. They were an absolute delight, without question enhancing the experience of the artworks he had made in response to British Museum artifacts. All of them were written in a clear, engaging, explanatory and intelligent way – without succumbing to two more common writing mistakes:
- “Dumbing down” or patronising the audience by over-simplifying the language and omitting central concerns or concepts.
- Unfinished narratives. Beginning a story and not finishing it. Stories hinted at but not told, gaps in timelines not explained, leaps from an artists’ controversial status to sudden acceptance as establishment figure etc
Although the aim of this site is not to “name and shame”, Tate is big enough to take it, so I give two examples from them of number (5). Both the recent Munch exhibition at Tate Modern, as well as its Yoyoi Kusama show had sudden jumps in narrative leading to the dissatisfaction of being drawn into a story with a crucial part of the narrative being left untold and unfinished. In my opinion, Tate’s Hirst retrospective suffered from number (4) – there wasn’t one word of critical discussion in the leaflet handed to visitors, or in the text panels on the wall, which was an opportunity wasted. Given Hirst’s fairly controversial artistic status, and his own knowing exploitation of this, surely it should have been a central part of any texts written about him?
There are of course many reasons why interpretation may look as it does. It has its own internal, professional, curatorial and academic practices and logic, all of which present valid cases for how it is written.
But from a writer’s perspective, identifying technical writing issues gives the opportunity to look at it in a different way. If writing is technically flawed, those flaws can be addressed, improved or removed, leading to better writing.
Good interpretation matters because there is such a huge range of artistic practices and concerns being shown in galleries. No-one can hope to know and understand everything they see and experience, however well educated they are and however much art they have seen. Written interpretation gives viewers an instant way in to greater understanding of the work and its context, theoretically without having to go to a great deal of effort. At its best, it will enrich perception and enjoyment, without obscuring, excluding or patronising audiences.
For me, good writing really is the key to good interpretation.