Turner, museums and asking the audience ‘Why’?

Another thought emerges regarding that agonising act of self-flagellation going on at the moment about language used in programme notes.

Instead of wringing our hands about what to say and how to say so that audiences feel included, why not do this instead: put the audience at the heart of the listening experience, support and empower them in that listening experience and, when it’s over leave them wanting to experience the whole thing again?

The central tenet of this potentially radical strategy is not education, but promoting a sense of self-reliance in the listener or audience member.

Sure. I know. That’s all a bit fucking weird, isn’t it. Bear with though. It’s a thought borne out of an experience I had today.

After a meeting at the Royal College of Music, a bit of free time on my hands. The sun was out. The sky was blue. Go on, I thought swing by the V&A on your way home.

I hadn’t visited the place in 10 years. I didn’t want to part with £19 to see the Opera, Passion and Power (quite a lot of money), but I fancied a wander around the free exhibits solely for the pure joy of discovery what resonated with me and what didn’t.

There’s a thread on Twitter – take a look. I basically live-tweeted my trip (yawn). My God though, it was a glorious visit.

My attention focussed on small detail, tessalations, china and glassware, vast facades, rugs and tiling, and the colour in stained glass windows. I experienced an undeniable thrill when I saw those elements. I gasped. I paused. I looked deeper.

The most striking was seeing a picture I’d never seen before: East Cowes Castle: The Regatta Starting for their Moorings (see above).

I don’t visit art galleries anywhere near enough. That probably accounts for why the impact being in the presence of so many large physical items at the V&A had on me anyway. But this image by Turner’s – The Regatta – took my breath away.

I stood staring at it for ages, transfixed.

One question quickly emerged: why? What was it about this image that so grabbed my attention?

The answer was immediate: it was to do with the use of light – the way the light was almost a subject in its own right, rather than an element that illuminates a subject. There was an unequivocal sense of elegance to the scene too. Energy, motion and just general joyousness emanating from the colour, light and sharp edges. Then as I looked more closely, there were the endless untold stories about the men in the boats and the people on the opposite river bank. It was the relatively simple way this painting stopped me in my tracks and commanded my attention. It was an intensely moving moment.

I know fuck all about art. Nobody was telling me what to think about the art. Nobody was telling me what they thought I needed to know about the art either (in whatever language they presumed I needed to be spoken to with). I just stood there and let my emotions respond to thing I was engaging with at that moment in time.

Here’s the zinger for me. I am interested in the mechanics of art. Whatever the equivalent of musicological study is in art, I’d almost certainly get sucked into it. When something’s good you want to immerse yourself in it. And I’m curious about this piece of art’s context. I want to understand what it’s a product of, and see if others respond to it in a similar way. Although it is a singular experience, there’s an implicit communal experience too.

I could go on. I won’t.

My point is this, how could we apply the experience I had in a museum and specifically the one fundamental question which arose as a result of seeing Turner’s Regatta to the concert hall?

Why aren’t we, for example, encouraging people to listen in a mindful or attentive way to music? Because that’s all they are required to do. They need know as much about the music they’re listening to in the moment as I did about Turner’s output today (and art in general).

Why aren’t we asking them a very simple question in the programme rather than telling them (using jargon, dumbed-down language, or musical terminology) what to think or feel (there’s a lot of it about) when they listen to something?

We could be asking someone to reflect on why a piece of music resonated with them. What was it that spoke to them? What aspect of a work grabbed and held their attention? Liberate them from their own assumptions that they need to know something before they go into the concert hall, and just ask them, “How did it make you feel?”

But we’re not doing that. Noone’s asking that. We’re still thinking of this from the perspective of having to educate (or inform) the audience who have already bought their ticket and sunk into their seat.

Instead, we’re picking over the bones of the subject we all apparently profess to love, some because of its self-aggrandising opportunities, others just for the sheer joy of self-sabotage.

Newsflash. Everyone else is looking on and saying, “What the fuck are you all doing?”

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2 thoughts to “Turner, museums and asking the audience ‘Why’?”

  1. But no-one compels you to read the programme notes. I rarely bother as I know I want to generate my own reaction to the music. And as you know, I don’t know anything about music! I’m sure others however value the information they get from the programme notes. It’s just a matter of choice, innit?

    1. Totally Mark. The choice is absolutely there. I’m just suggesting that instead of worrying about what language to use in the programme note, we encourage people to engage in a listening strategy rather than inadvertently making out it’s a passive experience. I get the impression we both listen actively to a concert. I think the real opportunity is encouraging others to do the same.

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