Should Visual Artists Give Their Paintings A Description

Many years ago, I watched a contemporary dance performance by a dear friend at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bangalore. It was a complex piece, somber, dark even accusatory at times and since I knew my friend, I also knew there were deeper meanings behind it. A mix of modern and ballet, “Spirit” by Jyotsna Rao repeated simple movements followed by practiced motionlessness and was not technically challenging for a dancer of her caliber, but the piece drew from this simplicity to create a powerfully dark, focused atmosphere. The white bandage wound all around her black leotard ala Milla Jovivich in ‘Fifth Element’ stood starkly in contrast. A sort of metaphor I guess for how the body is bound by earthly desires but the spirit is free.

The audience on the other hand was baffled at the end of it. They were clueless and quite frankly mute. Some of them wanted to know the idea and inspiration behind the piece from the artist. What did it mean? What was she trying to say etc.

At that time, I remember talking to my friend about including more info on the piece in the brochure. It would have helped people enjoy it as much as I did. She said she wanted the audience to interpret it and didn’t want to stand in their way by narrowing their vision with words. Fair enough.

As with performance art, visual artists too are faced with a similar dilemma. Is it necessary to title your paintings, provide a description? Is ‘Untitled’ not a good enough title anymore?

In general, artists title their artworks, but do not add anything else. However, you certainly can do anything you wish. You’re the boss when you’re an artist.

And there are two schools of thought about titling and description. Like it or not, an artwork is always seen through its title. It therefore directs the meaning of the artwork, which automatically limits the meaning of the artwork. Some artists like me think that is a good thing.

I want people to see and feel and think in a particular direction about the art I have created. Therefore the titles and descriptions I provide tend to be somewhat directive.

Other artists don’t want this to happen. They want the meaning of their work to stay as open as possible. So they don’t title at all. Or if they do title, because people want and expect titles, they will title with something that is mere identification, or something very vague, or even a number. This results in titles like Red Roses or Green Car or House 2. But meaning does not get as trapped or directed when this approach is taken.

Taking the time to write a detailed and compelling artwork description helps both collectors and curators discover new works when they’re searching for something specific and they provide collectors with interesting background information about the work.

Let’s take a hypothetical situation. You’re looking online for a special coffee table. You find one you like the look of, but there’s no description and only one picture. Do you buy it? Chances are, you start to worry whether it’s actually in stock, whether it is what it claims to be, or if the seller is even legitimate.

Apprehensive, you swiftly move on to find something else you can have more faith in. Providing description for art is no different. Put yourself in the viewer’s position, the norms of shopping are so ingrained that without a description potential collectors or curators will find it difficult to trust your art. They’ll struggle to visualise your artwork beyond an image, and this can be very damaging to your brand and credibility.

Unlike you they can’t see the artwork the way you do, so recreate that experience for them using the power of the written word. Because, lets face it – a picture is worth a thousand words but a short paragraph will open up a bridge to those thousand words.

So it’s all up to you. But remember, whatever you decide will live and accompany your art, and will affect it forever. So be a good parent. That artwork is your child, and whether it’s going to have a big, expansive life or a tiny narrow one, will – at least in this respect – depend on you.