No one reads the text on the wall.
You know how often we curators hear that at meetings, typically when Museum Educators are about? Too often. The fact is, yes, a lot of folks don't read labels, and fewer still read wall text, and part of the reason why so many people have rejected modernist art (besides the entire "My Kid Could Do That!" thing) is that museums feel the need to give text that doesn't connect with those that DO read it, often going into details that are just flat out irrelevant to the work at hand, and dismissing the impact of the actual work in favor of a wider-scale reading within the art community. People distrust wall text, and art curators in general, which is why A Wall Pitted By A Single Air Rifle Shot is actually pretty amazing
You see, there is no Air Rifle shot pitting the wall. I am not 100% sure, but I believe that there was never intended to be, and that makes the text, giant above the supposed, and non-existant, event it documents, the actual artwork. This would be most interesting on it's own (and would make it easy to create your own work of art for your living room with merely a stencil and some gumption!
The fact is, this is what people think of when they read wall text from some curator about modern art. It's all lies, covering up the fact that nothing's really there. The idea of putting a distinctly deceptive statement, in large, friendly letters, saying there is something there that is not is so much of what people who hate Modern Art point to when they say they hate modern art. It's the idea that what you're being told is not only a lie, but they're proud of that fact. The MoMA, which has had this on display at various times, seems over-joyed to have this 'work' up, and the average Joe who has no background in Art History will go searching for the pockmark that indicates that the text is true, only to come away with nothing.
Which is what a lot of people say when they encounter modern art anyways.
The problem is us curators have to make this relevant to the viewer. That's not hard for folks who get Conceptual Art, but to those without that sort of background, it's much more difficult. Any attempt to really explain this in a way that a non-art-steeped viewer would come away not only not angry, but fulfilled, would require reams of text, which is somethign museums aren't willing to do, because they see it as a no-win. Give 'em just enough text, and let 'em download the app, as the saying goes these days. But there IS value in text on walls. ENORMOUS value in text on walls. There is an interaction that happens where you can see the wall text as a work itself, and that gives greater impact not only to the words, but to the things attched to the words. With something as deep as A Wall Pitted By A Single Air Rifle Shot you need a lot of text, and yeah, a lot of people won't read it, but at the same time, it will do nothing but support the work and those that do encounter it will come away with not only a deeper understanding, but a better view on the role of the piece within the collection. You'd be hard-pressed to find a museum that will put out even a 200 word text piece, but that is not nearly enough for many works.
I watch people at museums. You'll notice that a vast majority of my photos from museums have people in them, interacting with the art/artifacts. I observe how they move, how they consider, how they view. No one, save for the absolute obsessives like myself, looks at every work. No one, save for absolute obsessives like myself, spends much time with most of the pieces they DO take in. This does not, in any way, detract from the inclusion of those pieces, and I would argue makes them more important in giving the viewer the sensation that they are immersed in something. To me, THAT is a massively important idea, that there is far more available to me than I can possibly take in, and I can choose what I can take in and what I can let go. Text should have that feeling, and sadly, so few museums today are willing to give it a go.
Christopher J Garcia - Curator, Fan Writer, Podcaster, and a guy who just loves art.