Must try harder

Behind the scenes

Sometimes I wonder about the blurbs we public gallery types pin to our exhibitions.

Pulse racing? Nor is mine.

The author at work on labels for his new show, 'Either Byronic or Moronic: Ongoing concerns and significant issues in the work of Uttër Drech'.

The author at work on labels for his new show, 'Either Byronic or Moronic: Ongoing concerns and significant issues in the work of Uttër Drech'.

I certainly wondered this afternoon, flicking through a copy of the British art magazine Frieze, where I came across a flier for the current retrospective at Tate Modern by German painter Gerhard Richter.

In its entirety it reads:

Spanning five decades, and coinciding with the artist's 80th birthday, Gerhard Richter: Panorama is a major chronological retrospective that groups together significant moments of this remarkable painter's career. It includes portraits based on photographs such as the famous Betty 1988, abstractions, subtle landscapes, colour charts, works on paper, mirrors and three important glass constructions.

Let's be gentle and ignore the fact that a retrospective is by definition chronological. And the fact that if you've 'grouped' something then there is absolutely no need to group it 'together'. Let's note, instead, that in the space of two sentences the writer of this teaser (or the typer of it, anyway: I'm not sure writer is quite the right word) manages to dampen our excitement with no fewer than four words that would, if I had my way, be banned from the contemporary art dictionary: major, significant, remarkable and important.

What's wrong with these words? The fact they tell us how we should feel without telling us why. They tell us the culture has already made its mind up about this art, no matter what we might think. And because the tone is so bland and impersonal, they suggest that this evaluation has descended from above and for all time. No questions asked. No doubts entertained.

I don't mean to act blameless here. I know I've perpetrated a few 'significants' and 'excitings' in my own time, and 'major', in particular, is one of those default-setting words you find yourself reaching for without even noticing (a quick search of this very website yields literally hundreds of examples). But surely it's time we jumped out of the spin cycle and allowed our blurbs and wall labels to become a bit more flavoursome and personal. 

In fact I think 'the personal' is a useful test to which all wall labels and blurbs should be submitted. Next time you're penning a wall label or introductory blurb, try this simple trick. Translate the whole thing from the lofty third person into the intimate first person instead. Suddenly a whole array of fallback clichés are revealed as outright absurdities. Imagine you're a big Richter fan (as I happen to be) dragging a friend along to the Tate. 'Come on', you insist, 'you've got to see this, there are three important glass constructions.' 'I'm busy', your friend says, 'why's it worth the effort?' 'Because', you answer, 'it groups together significant moments.' Your friend might indulge you and come along anyway, but whatever joys they encounter will be discovered in spite of those words, not because of them.

In short, like any writers, wall label-ists and blurbists have to earn the right to their adjectives. And viewers should never assent to any art's proposed 'importance' unless, after looking long and hard (and then looking once more to be sure), they see it and feel it for themselves.