An Ear Towards Van Gogh

Van Gogh, MFAH

The great thing about art, to me, is what someone at some point in the past, or recently, felt or wanted to convey is preserved on canvas or in another format and available for others, sometime in the near or distant future. Often this meaning is something that can’t adequately be conveyed with words or music. Art often picks up where words fail us.

Artists speak to us through art.

I am no expert on Vincent Van Gogh or his times, but he seems like a fellow who didn’t always know how to interact with the world. He painted as a necessary outlet. For him, art was a meaningful and satisfying form of expression.

“Would you like an audio headset?” The woman at the entrance to Van Gogh: His Life in Art asked us as we entered the exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH). “Sure,” Lin responded as we grabbed our devices and headed into the crowded room.

We didn’t make it to the Van Gogh Museum on our trip to Amsterdam, so we had to make it to Houston and see this exhibit. Many of the works are from the museum that’s the pride of the Netherlands. It was a great show, not too overwhelming, with some fun interactive stuff at the end. Houston is lucky to have it.

But those headsets…

In the past when you had one of these devices which made their way onto the museum scene a half dozen years ago or so, you would enter a number corresponding to a painting. A voice would begin providing some background information, which may or may not directly mirror the information on the label. Some works would have numbers, many would not. I’ve seen this done with mobile phones too, but haven’t seen that offered so much lately.

At this show, the code was replaced by something on the wall that you had to scan. To do this, you needed to lean forward over the guide rope and into the “3-foot” space museum guards frequently warn you not to enter.

I’m not sure why we didn’t hear the usual loud shrill. Maybe they gave up and turned it off.

Maybe leaning wasn’t really necessary, but it seemed you had to at least get a straight line of sight to the tag for the audio to play. With the huge crowds, it was hard to stand directly in front of a painting, let alone a little tag on the wall.

I quit using my audio device after the introduction. I like to walk around an exhibit, see what captures my eye and then after one passthrough, return to works I would like to see again and learn more about. I typically spend at least half as much time reading labels as looking at paintings. I don’t find audio to be a good substitute for that.

Revered by Van Gogh, Anton Mauve was married to van Gogh’s cousin Ariëtte.

If you rely on the voice, you will be guided through one work at a time, skipping over at least a third, maybe half. Are the ones without tags not important or not as important? Then why are they in the show? This also guides the mass of visitors to certain featured paintings like starlings in the sky. Instead of seeing the works in order, to see all the paintings you are forced to zig-zag to where there’s an opening, then return. (The one painting I wanted to learn more about was the Anton Mauve ‘cowscape’ in the MFAH collection, but alas, no tag to scan. (No one was standing around it either, I guess they assumed it wasn’t important).

Unable to get a clean line of sight to the next tag, fellow museum-goers lean over and into others to get to the next audio segment. It becomes a treasure hunt of sorts; find all of the tags and listen to the audio and you’re done (assuming you’re not one who needs a selfie with each tagged artwork).

Does anyone else think these audio guides are harmful to the exhibit experience? I don’t think I will say “yes” again when offered a guide. I might want to learn more after one passthrough, but how will I know what speaks to me if what I should be looking at is spoken at me?

This audio may be better as an internet slide show to view before or after an exhibit, or for use in a history museum. A prescription for what I should be looking at disrupts real engagement with art.

It’s time to rethink these devices and again let the art speak directly to us.

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