My son and I recently spent a Saturday afternoon together in Ottawa taking in the Van Gogh exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada.
Completely uncharacteristically (okay, maybe not completely uncharacteristic), we emerged from the gallery locked in a vigorous debate. It was touched off when I said how much I dislike plaques, signage, headphone audio commentary or similar distractions at an exhibit such as the Van Gogh.
The name of the piece, if it has one, and possibly the completion date are the maximum data necessary when standing before a painting or any work of art. Other information should be acquired before or, preferably, after the encounter, I argued.
My son, a doctoral student in history who was visiting Ottawa to do research at the National Archives, was appalled.
"You are so wrong," he told me for what I am sure was the first time in his life. "The exhibit has to be curated otherwise most people would have no idea what they are looking at."
There should, he insisted, be abundant detail on matters such as the artist's socioeconomic status, the identities of friends, influences, customers, and patrons; the political, religious, and social conditions when the work was created; and, if I recall correctly, at least something about the major trading relationships of the country of origin to aid critical understanding of contemporary intellectual influences.
"But that imposes a narrative on the work—the narrative of whoever picks and chooses those details," I countered. "I don't want someone else's story forming my response when I am looking at a painting."
"You," he said for what I am sure was only the second time in his life, "are so wrong."
Entirely coincidently, I spent the next afternoon with my daughter, an artist and musician, visiting the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. About half way through the Sunday schlep around the exhibits, I noticed a completely uncharacteristic (okay, maybe not completely uncharacteristic) look of distaste on her face.
"I hate it when they put up these plaques and signs and things," she said. "I don't want the people who work at the museum imposing their stories on me. I'm here to look at art, not read about it."
The easy thing to do would be to reduce the dichotomy to yet another "there are two kinds of people in the world" formulation. Reflecting on it, though, I was struck by the debate's applicability to life far beyond the plastic arts, including to the life of faith.
The imperative that galleries feel to place art and text side by side no doubt starts as benevolent compensation for deficiency in art history. The deficiency itself arises from the universal misconception that art must be treated democratically to fulfill its supposed obligation to edify us individually and socially.
The unintended consequence of the benevolence and the compensation, however, is to further diminish the minimal amount that is left of our capacity to stare at the world and pay full attention to our experience of it.