Museums and Theaters Should Stop Telling Me What to Think About Art

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Museums and theaters should stop telling me what to think about art.  I know that the folks who run museums and theaters think they are just providing context and facilitating discussion, but too often they are actually attempting to control what their patrons think about art works and plays with excessive gallery text and after show “talkbacks.”

I have no expertise in curating galleries or presenting plays, but I can speak as a frequent consumer of the arts that this well-intentioned, but ultimately bossy, deluge of information interferes with my direct experience and enjoyment of the art.  And I’m not the only one who feels this way.  Last year the playwright, David Mamet, forbid talkbacks following his plays.  He was mocked by some in the theater community for this, but I understand what drove his action.  Too many theaters were hosting talkbacks after his plays in which the theater staff or an expert they selected were obviously steering the audience toward particular and simplified interpretations of his work that might make it less controversial.  As another playwright, Christopher Shinn put it: “Broadly speaking, theaters use talkbacks to protect the audience from uncomfortable feelings the play may have aroused.”

I’m all for discussing plays after you see them, but that’s why you should go for dinner or drinks afterwards. When theaters host the discussion they cannot help but use their authority to drive the discussion in certain directions.  I don’t want my theater to tell me what to think about the play I just saw.  I want to develop my own thoughts and talk to others without the mediation of self-appointed experts on its meaning.

Shaping what people think about a play is especially likely if the theater-facilitated discussion immediately follows the performance.  That’s why some theaters hold events at separate time or in separate locations, more clearly demarcating the interpretation from the performance itself.  This seems like a reasonable compromise for theaters concerned about expanding audience engagement without being too controlling.

Some art museums have also drifted away from excessive gallery text.  The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston, for example emphasizes: “Isabella created her installations to evoke an emotional response in visitors. That’s why, unlike at other institutions, there aren’t conventional labels in this museum. She wanted you to find your own meanings.”  But other museums, while trying to avoid “the priestly voice of absolute authority,” still feel obliged to cover their walls in verbiage about the social and historical context of the works they display.

I sympathize with the impulses of museum staff to try to help their patrons, but I fear that they have too little trust in the ability of the art to communicate without mediation.  In addition, social and historical contexts are complicated and often disputed, so when museums try to convey that context they are inevitably making choices about what the correct understanding of history and sociology should be.  I am no more interested in having my museum tell me what to think about the world than having it tell me what to think about art.

Also posted on the University of Arkansas’ NEA Research Lab Blog.


3 Responses to Museums and Theaters Should Stop Telling Me What to Think About Art

  1. Greg Forster says:

    But Jay, if we don’t need professional know-it-alls to tell us what to think, how will they justify their superiority over the rest of us?

    “I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts…I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them – thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to speak of this, but still I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. That showed me in an instant that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them.”

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