Of all the cryptic artworks in Tate Modern’s newly rehung collection, perhaps the most baffling is an esoteric installation by the German artist Joseph Beuys. Suspended from a steel girder, a large bronze triangle dangles over the floor. Around it are scattered strange turd-like objects, resembling a child’s scatological experiments with Plasticine, and other clutter such as a tripod, a compass and a three-wheeled cart. The title, “Lightning with Stag in its Glare”, is mystifying. It seems to simultaneously invite and defy interpretation, a tease that illustrates Beuys’ artistic philosophy. “Art is not there to be simply understood,” he once said, “or we would have no need for art.”
How do I know he said that? Because the Tate’s fancy new multimedia guide told me as I looked at the installation. A handheld computer with films, commentary, artist interviews and interactive games, this futuristic piece of kit does its best to get up Beuys’s posthumous nose by making his installation readily comprehensible: within minutes I learnt how to decode his arcane symbols and discern the nature-narrative taking place in his work. Aha! Time to move on to the next exhibit.
I’m a sucker for audio guides so this whizzy gadget initially delighted and intrigued me. But after a while I began to find its plethora of functions offputting. The games and films sidetracked me from the art, while the commentary increasingly got on my nerves, offering presumptuous judgments (Salvador Dali’s “Lobster Telephone” is “both playful and menacing”, apparently) and generally interpolating itself between me and the collection. When this high-tech companion sinisterly asked which emotion I was feeling as I entered a room of vast Mark Rothko abstract canvases, I had the uneasy sensation of being on an art tour with HAL, the sentient supercomputer from the film 2001, A Space Odyssey.
By the end, I felt exhausted by information overload yet somehow shortchanged too, as if I had failed to connect meaningfully with the works themselves. Richard Wollheim, the philosopher of art who invented the term “minimalism”, believed that it took three hours of looking before a work of art opened itself up to the viewer. In contrast, there I was standing wearing headphones in front of a canvas with a slit in it (Lucio Fontana’s “Spatial Concept ‘Waiting’”) while my multimedia guide uttered pensees such as: “Disturbing, striking, baffling - but is it art?”
Somehow I don’t think the professor would have approved.
Of course most people don’t have the time or stamina to spend several hours staring at a single picture. Even Wollheim realised the drawbacks. “I noticed that I became an object of suspicion to passers-by, and so did the picture that I was looking at,” he admitted.
For the rest of us, the sources of information that museums use to frame their collections - in the form of captions, catalogues and audio guides - are vital. Joseph Beuys may have been right to say that art is not there to be simply understood, but it does require contextualising. Whether they be classical allusions in a Renaissance portrait or the postwar American setting of an abstract expressionist painting, there are artistic facts that can’t be gleaned by solely staring at the work. Yet all this information is confusing too. Where do you start? Should you look at the picture and then read the caption, or vice-versa? Should you try to make sense of it on your own before listening to the audio guide? What comes first, the work or its context?
Stephen Greenblatt, the Shakespeare biographer and literary theorist, addressed this question in an essay about museum displays called “Resonance and Wonder”. A resonant exhibition, to use his term, focuses on the cultural or social background of the works it exhibits and so draws our attention away from their aesthetic properties. “By wonder,” he explains of the opposite approach, “I mean the power of the displayed object to stop the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention.”
The best museums combine both. A few years ago I had an epiphany at the Sistine Chapel, appropriately enough, which when I visited had a particularly scholarly and cogent audio guide. Its commentary not only helped me to understand the dense, archaic layers of theological and artistic significance in Michelangelo’s frescoes, but also cocooned me from the airport-style crowds and intrusive security that make visiting the chapel so stressful. Despite being in one of the world’s busiest tourist sites, I found my consciousness being filled by the extraordinary scope and technique of Michelangelo’s art.
At Tate Modern, in contrast, I sensed that the urge to educate overwhelmed any possibility of wonderment. The museum’s snazzy multimedia guide may have its uses as a learning tool but as an artistic companion it proved too distracting. Its constant clamour for my attention made me unsure and self-conscious about how I should look at the art on display, a mood that persisted until my eye was caught by an abrasive caption quoting the American abstract artist Clyfford Still.
“My paintings have no title because I do not wish them to be considered illustrations or pictorial puzzles. If properly made visible they speak for themselves,” it said.
My craving for interpretation wilted under this rebuke. Yet it turned out that my computerised guide seemed to be undergoing a similar experience. “You may find this a bit puzzling,” it told me as we stood observing an erotically charged, mysterious Joan Miro painting. But then it did the decent thing and crashed.