I recently went to the Grayson Perry exhibit at the British Museum.
As we went round I had to ask my wife what we were looking at.
Is it any good?
Cathy said it was wonderful, she loved it.
I asked why.
She said what he was doing was incredibly skilled for a start.
Cath used to do pottery herself.
She also said she was knocked out with his sense of design.
Cathy is an art director.
For me it was just a lot of pots.
And then more pots.
I’d look at the pots and wonder what all the fuss was about.
So I’d read the piece of paper on the wall next to it, telling me what it was about.
And I thought the paper was better than the pot.
But the point was, the pot didn’t work on its own.
Not without the explanation.
And that goes against all my training.
Everything I do has to work totally on its own.
And in a very short space of time.
We don’t get to stand next to it explaining it.
So for me, anything that needs explaining is a failure.
It’s a bit like having to read the body copy.
That might have been okay 100 years ago.
People read copy because there was far less media.
They bought a newspaper or magazine and read every word in it.
There was no competing television, or radio, or internet, or DVDs, or games consuls, or social media, or texting, or emails.
Nowadays we get a split second to arrest the audience.
And, if we manage to do that, another second to detain and persuade them.
If they don’t understand it, they don’t carefully read the explanation.
They just flip past it.
There’s far too much other stuff going on to worry about it.
It’s like standing in Oxford Street in the rush hour being quietly enigmatic.
Waiting for someone to ask you why you’re doing it.
Lots of luck.
You’ll wait all day.
But that’s the environment we work in.
It’s not an art gallery.
In an art gallery people have already decided they’re interested before they enter.
So they want to find out about it.
So they’re grateful for the explanation next to the work.
And, in that context, the explanation has a value.
But it’s not a context I’m comfortable with.
To me it will always feel lazy.
As if the art itself can’t do the job.
And I was having this discussion with my wife, as we looked at Grayson Perry’s work.
And my wife reminded me of a TED talk by Richard Seymour.
Richard gives an illustration of the added dimension of ‘feeling’.
Rather than just understanding.
First he shows a picture of a crude drawing of a flower and a butterfly.
He asks you how it affects you.
Is it pretty, is it charming, or is it just not a very good drawing?
Then he tells you that actually that drawing was the last physical act in this world of a little 5 year old girl called Heidi.
She had cancer of the spine and died immediately after finishing that drawing.
Now he asks you to look at it again and see if it affects you differently.
And, of course, the information totally changes what you see.
Now it’s incredibly poignant and heartbreakingly beautiful.
The information increases the effect of the drawing many times over.
And, when my wife put it to me like that, I could at least appreciate the validity of an explanation in certain situations.
An art gallery for instance.
But it’s further proof to me, that what we do isn’t art.
And where we work isn’t an art gallery.