The Museum on My Mind

Part 1: If The Walls Would Not Speak

By Rob Marks September 10, 2013

Wall labels. Curatorial text. Provenance. Titles (or un-titles, as the case may be). At what point do the words surrounding an artwork serve the work, and at what point do they disrupt it? In terms of the museum, specifically, when do explanatory labels benefit museum-goers, and when do they detract from an individual’s experience? Rob Marks' "The Museum On My Mind" is a meditation on the role of museum commentary and what it means to “know” a piece of art.

Art Practical is pleased to present the first in a series of articles originally published by our partner Daily Serving,“The Museum on My Mind,” by Rob Marks and adapted for this issue. Subsequent installments will appear in future issues, and you can read the whole series here.

It is an old tension, and it would be unreasonable to expect that it might have been resolved by now.

The museum is the kindest parent, ushering me to the brink, toward moments of wonder and awe, insight and revelation. But almost at once, it is the cruelest parent, jerking me back, repossessing the very experience it had allowed me to glimpse. Although it is laudable for museums to exalt the goal of “activating the visitor,” of nurturing visitor engagement and visitor choice, the structure of museums turns the visit into a battle for control and unearths a central tension of museum practice. On the one hand is the archeological experience of a cultural object, which claims the object as an illustration within a narrative to tell the visitor something about the context of the object—its meaning for others. On the other hand is the aesthetic experience of an art object, during which the object is freed from its historical or cultural context, illustrating only something about the visitor’s self.

It is an old tension, and it would be unreasonable to expect that it might have been resolved by now. It is, simply put, not for resolving. This vigorous state of irresolution, however, has not been matched by an equally unsettled set of museum practices. Although much has been written about exhibition commentary and structure, and new technology has inspired new formats of presenting information, museum methods have remained remarkably fixed in their philosophy: to marshal language toward interpretation. This article is the first in a series of essays: a polemic, a tribute, a sensation, and a quest to enter into this churning tranquility. I am not a curator, nor am I a museum director faced with the demands of a dozen constituencies. I am simply a traveler, a visitor, and a child of the museum who is beginning to feel cheated out his inheritance, out of the wonder that is or should be the legacy of the museum.

With or Without


John Cage. Eninka 28, 1986; one in a series of fifty smoked and branded prints on gampi paper chine colle; 25 x 19 inches; published by Crown Point Press, San Francisco. Courtesy of Crown Point Press.

“We can get along with education, or without it,” the pioneering composer and artist John Cage said, nine months before he died in August 1992. He was responding to the poet and scholar Joan Retallack’s question, “Knowing the extent to which [your work] is a result of chance operations teaches me something about seeing, and about the radical contingency of events in our world. . . . But how would one notice any of this . . . if one knew nothing about how and why you have worked the way you do?”1 Retallack means how would one know that Cage applied the system of “chance operations” for which he was famous, as a tool to marshal “indeterminacy,” to put “the intention of the mind . . . out of operation” during his creative process?2 How would one know that the composition of both his musical works and the prints he produced at San Francisco’s Crown Point Press over the last fifteen years of his life reveal something about the nature of the world by reflecting this “radical contingency”? Retallack said of Cage’s Where R=Ryoanji print series (1991):

I was seeing them as I was trained to see “abstract” drawings, looking for elements of balance and design. Then I remembered that they were tracings of chance-comings-together. . . . At that moment of remembering, or realization, everything changed. I was no longer seeing “design”—something heavy and portentous; I was seeing the lightness, the grace and fragility of chance—how wonderful that that had come together in that way. But also how close it was to not happening at all. I would not have had this experience without knowing how you work. It was the conceptual context that I took on, that opened up that way of seeing. And it seems to me that it is that context, of knowing the chance procedures, that keeps those traces from solidifying. . . . Keeps them from losing the motion that’s in them as events that have just grazed this piece of paper. It’s as though at any moment they could glance off again, fly apart.3

John Cage. 75 Stones, 1989; color spit bite aquatint with sugar lift aquatint on smoked paper; 54 x 41 inches; published by Crown Point Press, San Francisco. Courtesy of Crown Point Press.

In a museum dominated by narrative, knowing is often framed as the province of language. For Retallack, and indeed for most museum curators and educators, the context of an exhibition—the recitation that places the work and the artist within art historical, sociopolitical, psycho-biographical and other frameworks—is crucial to the visitor’s experience of the work. The structure of this recitation is not merely the  “talk”—of the wall plaques and labels that ornament the artworks, the audio guides and brochures that narrate the exhibition, and the docent tours that explore it—but also the “walk” of the sequencing that governs one’s procession, as if on a conveyor belt, from one label and its artwork to another, one gallery to the next. On the one-hundredth anniversary of Cage’s birthday, it makes sense to ask why this tendency is so prevalent and what structures allow it to manifest as such a jekyllhydian parent.

Despite the fact that Cage’s work does resonate differently when I understand his process, knowing also disrupts my engagement. An artwork without a label would seem to be reticent, if not mute, but to what extent does the commentary of a label or a wall plaque arrest experience before it has a chance to develop? Just as the silence of Cage’s piano during his iconic composition 4’33” (1952) reveals the ambient sound of the world as music, the absent label, which seems to create emptiness, makes room for an artwork that words might otherwise obscure.

A Label By Any Other Name

For Cage, wall text and even the sequencing of an exhibition seem to be too much information.

If Cage demurs to Retallack that, “We can get along with education, or without it,” his formulation of “tourist attitude” suggests where his heart lies: He’d prefer to be without either the talk of a guidebook or the walk of a map. Cage defines “tourist attitude” as the proposition to “act as though you’ve never been there before. So that you’re not supposed to know anything about it."4 Even if one does know something, Cage says, things will be different from what one has read, or even from past experiences of the artwork, because the conditions of viewing and being are different now from what they were then. For Cage, wall text and even the sequencing of an exhibition seem to be too much information. This is less an offense—since, he says, it will do—than a lost opportunity to engage what gets scuttled in the frenzy of activity: the serendipity of wandering and, in response to unforeseen encounters, wondering. In fact, Cage, never settling for the predictability that wall text and sequence enforce, curated two exhibitions that used chance operations to identify, place, and frequently rotate works during the run of each.5

John Cage. Global Village 1, 1989; aquatint on two sheets of brown smoked paper; 38.5 x 26.5 inches; published by Crown Point Press, San Francisco. Courtesy of Crown Point Press.

Jonathan Franzen offers perhaps the most graceful counterargument to Cage’s tourist attitude. Writing about Edith Wharton’s capacity to evoke compassion for the most unsympathetic characters, characters “we wouldn’t like in real life,” he observes, “[T]he alchemical agent by which fiction transmutes my secret envy or dislike of ‘bad’ people into sympathy is desire.” Once an author gives a character a “powerful desire,” Franzen suggests, “I, as a reader, become helpless not to make that desire my own.”6

Could it be that wall commentary, often far less compelling than a Wharton novel, nonetheless, by narrating the artist’s intention, makes it palpable enough, so I, a visitor, might magically embrace the artist’s desire as my own? I root for the artist, even if, as Franzen says of many a Wharton heroine, the character of his or her work might otherwise baffle or alarm me. It’s not that I relinquish my judgment but that I suspend it, at least for long enough to view the work through the artist’s—or, at least, the curator’s evocation of the artist’s—loving eyes.

John Cage. Without Horizon 33, 1992; one in a series of fifty-seven unique aquatints with etching and drypoint on smoked paper; 7.5 x 8.5 inches; published by Crown Point Press, San Francisco. Courtesy of Crown Point Press.  The works included in this article were on view during John Cage, a retrospective exhibition at Crown Point Press, which ran from February 3 through March 31, 2012 in honor of the one hundredth anniversary of Cage’s birth.

Or is the power of some artwork so embedded in history or theory that, unaided by commentary, the visitor might overlook the works because they seem meaningless or intimidating? For the architectural and art historian Laura Hollengreen, commentary is not a supplement to or an enrichment of the experience, as Retallack seems to suggest, but a crucial component of it.7 Commentary, for Hollengreen, frontloads meaning—symbolism in Dutch art or indeterminacy in John Cage’s work—and builds confidence in order to seed an experience that might otherwise fail to develop.

Does Franzen’s seduction or Hollengreen’s education suspend or produce the very agency that many museums say they are seeking to activate in me, as the audience? Once again, I find myself with an ambivalent parent, on the one hand encouraging me toward a Cageian tour of the world, and, on the other, seeking to shelter me from the danger of misunderstanding the work or condemning the artist by ensuring that I never stray far from home.

Narrative of Self, Narrative of Other

For a given curator, the process of exhibition making may be a joyful sharing: a labor of intimacy with, if not love of, the material. As the curator and critic Simon Sheikh recounts, however, the museum’s historical roots gather nourishment from the language not only of “cultivation” but also of “corrective vision.”8 Sheikh says, “The right way of seeing . . . was offered as narrative pleasure, giving the spectator access to the viewpoints of power—indeed, empowering them by infusing them with knowledge while situating them within the grand narrative of the nation state and Western civilization.” This is an enterprise that continues “through to today’s multifaceted and mediated art institutions with their confluence of spectacle and education, national history and multicultural internationalism.”

John Cage. Déreau 22, 1982; one in a series of thirty-eight engravings with drypoint, aquatint, and photoetching; 14 x 18 inches; published by Crown Point Press, San Francisco. Courtesy of Crown Point Press.

The curator and artist Paul O’Neill refers to exhibitions, particularly group exhibitions, simply as “ideological texts.”9 There is nothing wrong with thinking of an exhibition as an art historical, sociocultural, or political essay, in which the artworks function as illustrations of the essay’s theme. But in that case, the exhibition is not about a visitor’s relationship to the artworks; it is about his or her relationship to the theme and its underlying objectives. At one point in their conversation, Cage and Retallack parse the difference between illustration and accompaniment, a distinction that applies equally to the book they were talking about and to an exhibition. “lllustration means that the center exists in another place,” Cage says. “So an illustration is not at the center, but is about the center. Whereas with accompaniment, each one is at its own center.”10 Is the commentary of the label illustrating the artwork the ostensible center of the exhibition? Or is the artwork illustrating the commentary, and is the center of the exhibition really the story that the curator seeks to narrate? This lands us back at the (false) dichotomy of the aesthetic versus the archeological.

Cage allows for one other possibility: artwork and narrative may accompany one another, each maintaining its own centrality. Many museum experiences may, in fact, unfold this way, if only accidentally. If it is wise for museums to ensure the juxtaposition of multiple narratives, so that they undo their own narrative making, what might an exhibition do or be to sustain the aesthetic—the narrative of self—as central, along with the archeological—the narrative of other? Stay tuned. 


  1. Joan Retallack, ed. Musicage: Cage Muses on Words Art Music (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press and University Press of New England, 1996), 130–31. Musicage is a monumental work of reportage, a transcription of ten days of conversation between Cage and Retallack that occurred over two years. It shows both individuals to be effective interpreters of Cage’s work and philosophy.
  2. Retallack, 127.
  3. Retallack, 132.
  4. Retallack, 129–130.
  5. Changing installation at Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory, which included works from the Carnegie Museum of Art, and Rolywholyover: A Circus, which traveled from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, to four other cities: Houston, New York, Philadelphia, and Tokyo.
  6. Jonathan Franzen, “A Rooting Interest,” New Yorker, February 13 & 20, 2012, 60.
  7. Laura Hollengreen, “Space, Seam, Scenario: The Many Operations of the Museum Label” (paper presented at the panel titled “‘Your Labels Make Me Feel Stupid’: Museum Labels as Art-Historical Practice” at the College Art Association Annual Conference, Los Angeles, February 22–25, 2012).
  8. Simon Sheikh, “Letter to Jane (Investigation of a Function),” Curating and the Educational Turn, ed. Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson (London: Open Editions/de Appel, 2010), 65.
  9. Paul O’Neill, “The Curatorial Turn: From Practice to Discourse,” Issues in Curating Contemporary Art and Performance, ed. Judith Rugg and Michelle Sedgwick (Chicago: Intellect Books, 2007), 14.
  10. Retallack, 150.

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