A few months ago I went to see “Surrealism Beyond Borders” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Let me start with, I don’t really love surrealism, except for some Magritte, so I probably should not be the one to give you a review of the art.

However, what I can give you a review of is how the exhibit was curated…

Too many words.

Way way too many words.

For every work of art there were three descriptions. Long descriptions. After reading the first few plaques my eyes were tired…and I was only in the first gallery. And there were at least six galleries in the exhibit…

I was so lost in words I neglected to actually look at the art, and looking at the art was what I came to do. If I wanted to get this much backstory, I would have read a book with a few pictures tossed in. I don’t know if you know this but I like to read and have been known to read a few books every year…

When you are at an ART exhibit, do you want to focus on the works before you, or do you want to read about them?

Is there a case to be made that if art needs that much description, it’s not really that good?

Should art be a clear cut case of show don’t tell?

Lucky for you, I’m going to give my opinion. I think that art, books, movies, etc should stand alone. If I need to read anything more than a sentence or two about the work, I think the work missed its mark. If I need it to be interpreted, it can’t be very good.

Now, I do realize that sometimes you need to have historical context- knowing when and where a work was done is helpful. But what’s the right amount of information to include next to a work?

When I go to an exhibit, I like the opening credits…the introduction of what you are about to see. It usually gives a brief bio (if it’s one artist) and what the works/artist have in common. There’s probably a little historical context. But then I want to see the work, and I want very little accompaniment to the actual works unless there’s an interesting anecdote…ie I saw a Jasper Johns exhibit recently and one of his works was influenced by the suicide of a poet- this made me look at the piece in a different light… I don’t want the six volume bio, and unless it’s really relevant, I don’t need to know the names of every child they went to school with…

When dealing with a book, movie, work or art, whatever, do you want just the work? Or do you want the whole backstory? Is just a little enough to satisfy your curiosity? Are you OK with just a little because you figure you can always research more if you like?

Is showing not telling enough? Or do you long for showing and telling?


76 thoughts on “Show Don’t Tell

  1. I’ve found myself doing this exact thing-reading in the art museum instead of feeling it. I think a title can perhaps hint to you about the intent of the artist, but I believe good art should be felt, in all mediums. If I have to read an article to explain to me why a book, movie, artist is important or relevant-maybe its simply not for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agree. My process is to walk around the room, find the one or two that speak to me, and then concentrate on them. This may or may not include reading the stuff…I want to experience it

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  2. So ironic that you posted this topic! Granddaughters latest art enrichment focus is surrealism. I plan to have them try both a Magritte and a Miro, but surrealism is tough to comprehend in general. We’re also working on their exhibition labels for a little gallery exhibit once we finish all the styles. Short and sweet is our goal as we are talking quite a bit about allowing viewers to interpret the art in their own way, not be told what/how to feel or think about a piece.

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  3. Part of the problem for someone who loves to read is that they read everything put in front of them–lists, old newspapers intended for packing supplies, excessive descriptions at a museum, etc. The art exhibit you toured sounds like overkill in an effort to display all the knowledge and connections the curator has about the art. I agree that you can read all of that and walk away without really having seen or known that work of art. Less is more in this case!

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  4. I like BOTH. Obviously, I don’t NEED a backstory about art to appreciate it. But, if I really, really like a piece of work, I want to know EVERYTHING about it. And I love that the info is right there. Plus, I have free will . I can choose which pieces to read about and which ones to look at and then walk past. So my opinion is…the more info provided the better. But, I’m a research nut. I can’t even watch a movie or tv show without putting the show on pause so I can google info about something. If the museum didn’t provide extra info I’d spend more time googling each painting on my own and never get through the exhibit. . And I’d probably complain when I left that not enough info was provided. Which brings to mind A Shakespeare quote …”Oh wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?”

    I guess it’s different strokes for different folks. Read if you want, don’t read it you don’t want to. There’s no right or wrong way to enjoy art. It’s ALL GOOD!

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      1. LA Why not read only the pieces that move you. I think it’s nice that they provide information. But I don’t think You should ever felt pressured to read everything. However I can totally understand why you felt like you had to . I bet you were an A student in school! Lol I’ll even skim over boring paragraphs in books I read. In fact at my age I don’t need to read all the sex scenes. Sometimes I think… oh who cares, I want to solve the murder, I don’t have time to read about them in bed. . Of course in my 30’s and 40’s I probably would read those scenes twice. As I have gotten older I don’t bother reading things that I don’t want to read or watch films or shows I don’t like. I remember in a book club I was in when Game of thrones came out I loved the characters but hated all the war scenes so I simply skimmed through those scenes. And I fast forward through unpleasant parts of films too. I did that in the tv show GoT too. Life’s too short to waste time doing what you don’t want to do. Next time enjoy the museum however you want to. It’s your experience after all.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. To be fair I was a lousy student in school…but there’s all sorts of reasons behind that..😆 there was so much verbiage I felt compelled to read much of it…but then I developed brain fog…


  5. LA, I’m curious, what is it you don’t like about RENE MAGRITTE? I enjoy surrealism. But then I like all types of art. I’m not sure I have a favorite style or genre. . Whatever moves me. He’s not my favorite artist but some of his paintings are very special. Does he make me cry like Van Gogh? Or Mary Cassette? Nope. But each artist touches my soul differently.

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  6. I focus on the works before me and the thoughts/feelings they evoke within me. This is why even though I’ve been to many art museums in my life, I know little about the artists. I’m a bad conversationalist when it comes to conversations about art. I just listen and nod my head as if I know what everyone is talking about.

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      1. Were the words in this exhibit just a bio of the artist and his place in 20th century surrealism? I guess I’m the odd duck. I’d want to know historically when the painting was inspired. That way I could look and assess the social climate at the time the art was created. For instance Art drawn during social unrest is different from those done during peace time. What was created in the turbulent 60’s would be very different from sketches created during the Trump regime. Political unrest tends to create darker images while art drawn during hopeful times has a lighter feel. So a backstory can give a clearer understanding of surrealism and an artist’s motivation. And a drawing by Bruegel or Bosch has a deeper intent due to the time period and the artist’s message. Art can stand alone certainly, but great art stands the test of time and there’s a reason it does. I always try to imagine what people of the day thought of the work back when it was produced. And I try to imagine the author’s motivation. To me, art is a time machine that carries us to another time and place. I try to notice every detail. And I try to get inside the mind of the genus who created it. I think most of the time you need to spend hours to take in the full intensity of the work.

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      2. The point of the exhibition was to really highlight surrealism that wasn’t Western European, and surrealism that had more of a focus on strife and upheaval, war, politics, etc. while I get that they were exposing the general populace to something they’re never quite seen or experienced, I felt like I was being schooled. Personally, I didn’t like much of the work, which was part of my problem. Personally, I would have appreciated the art without the lesson

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      3. I get the spirit of the idea, but judging by the less than turnout, I think they missed the mark. Most of the big special exhibits have lines to go in…this one didn’t…

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  7. I like surrealism. At the Laguna Beach Arts Fesitval there’s a local artist Scott Moore who I love. I bought one of his signed prints and have it framed in my casita, where I hang out while my loud husband is working. As for exhibits, I 100% agree that less is more next to the art.

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      1. I don’t always understand surrealism either and some of it bothers me. The print I bought of his is called “Coffee break” and it was a woman standing outside her old fashioned home with a cup of coffee. Then there are outsized items like cookbooks and gardening books leaning against the house plus and a giant cup of coffee and percolator. Some of the books in the painting were ones my mom had in her kitchen. It’s very homey feeling.

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      2. I don’t know if anybody really understands surrealism. Lol Sometimes I think Dali was just spoofing us. Chagall is pretty easy to understand. His are mostly from his dreams, and how much sense do dreams make? Did you know the named of the play Fiddler on the Roof came from a Chagall paintings where a floating violinist looked like he might be a fiddler on a roof. Chagall must have flown in his dreams. ( I don’t fly in dreams so I don’t know what that’s like. ). But it’s so interesting to see what came out of the brains of these artists and put on canvas. , fascinating stuff.

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  8. If it’s been written by the artist, I’m more inclined to read it. If written by the exhibition’s curator, way less likely unless I find the picture a puzzle. I do enjoy curator talks (in person or online), but I like them to be separate to the wandering the galleries looking at the art experience. It’s one of the reasons I don’t get those commentary recordings so prevalent in galleries.

    I suspect what’s happening is they’re attempting to draw more a greater footfall by “educating” new to art visitors. Overall, they don’t bother me for I find them easy to ignore. I would be annoyed if they took up too much space so there was less actual art to see.

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  9. Some works of art do require explanation. And I do find it interesting to hear the artist’s point of view – what they were trying to convey – versus my own interpretation. But I get the distraction issue. I think the exhibitor should give everyone a handout with all that stuff and you can look at it at your leisure if you want to

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    1. Yes. I think an accompanying guide would have been better. Especially as sometimes I like to look, absorb, and then explore. I often take a shot if something I like and look into it more at home.

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  10. A guide would be nice. I went on a guided tour at the National Museum of Art in DC and that was great. And I do the same with taking a pic and looking it up later. Sometimes the artist’s biography is pretty fascinating

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  11. IDK but is surrealism anything like magic realism. I just did a presentation on the latter with regards to literature only. After that, I came to realize that I look at this lit the same way you looked at that art, just enjoy it for what it is. If you want (as opposed to need) to know more about what’s behind it, you can always look it up yourself.

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