To Label or Not to Label

Recently, in my Global Baroque Art History class, we discussed artwork labels in museums. Our class is creating an exhibition of Baroque work, so we started to think about different themes we wanted to portray, works we wanted to include, and, of course, whether or not we should have labels. Artwork labels indicate the title, the artist, the date, and often the location. Some labels will also include background information, which could be about the piece itself, about the artist, or a combination of both. It was with this in mind that I visited my longtime favorite Heckscher Museum, where Richard Mayhew’s Reinventing Landscape is currently on view.

Mayhew is a Long Island artist who draws on his African American and Native American roots to portray landscapes. He creates abstract landscapes, which he calls “mindscapes” that capture inner thoughts through color and form. Many of the labels that were included in the exhibit reference his Indigenous background. Typically at museums, I find myself more interested in the ones that included labels, simply because I like seeing if my interpretation was right. I tend to look at a piece for a while before reading the label because I feel like the experience of putting yourself within an image is unlike any other. Here, however, I felt drawn to many pieces that did not have their story on display, and in an odd way, I liked being able to decide the story for myself.

Take a look at this image, and try to interpret it on your own:

Richard Mayhew, Temptation

My first thought when I looked at this piece was that it reminded me of Mars. It felt like an abandoned, lonely landscape, deprived of life. It felt angry, like it wanted more but couldn’t have it. It felt sick, lost in itself. Looking at this painting, I found myself feeling a bit uneasy, as if the world in this image was under attack. How does it make you feel?

I tend to look at a piece for a while before reading the label because I feel like the experience of putting yourself within an image is unlike any other.

Now, check out the label for this piece:

Reading this label, I was struck by the last sentence; how this piece might speak to “…the temptation to control and exploit the land and its resources.” Was it not the temptation to control and exploit what cost millions of Indigenous people their lives? A desolate, lonely world, indeed. Now look back at the painting: what do you notice that you didn’t before? Perhaps the areas of dark green are patches of land that are struggling to overcome the harsh conditions. The bright blue sky could be the hope for a better tomorrow. There is so much raw emotion in this piece, and I have to wonder how these emotions would change if no label was included.

Here are some examples of pieces that did not have labels:

These pieces, as opposed to Temptation, felt serene. I wanted to find these places so I could experience it first hand. I could envision the rich sunset and the warmth on my face. I could hear the rain on my window while sitting with a book. I could see the mist over the mountains as I looked out of my airplane window, embarking on a journey with my best friends. Without a label, you’re almost forced to psychically put yourself within the paintings. I think that that’s a beautiful experience. However, it makes sense that “lighter” images would not need a label; if you have to put yourself within an image, of course you’re going to imagine the best case scenario. It’s the more intense images, with darker or sadder themes, that need the labels. It’s vital that the viewer is told the whole story, so that they can completely understand what is in front of them.

So, labels or no labels? I don’t think there is one right answer. Labels serve a great purpose, but many claim that they can be limiting. Others would argue that they provide accessibility to art without an obvious meaning. Both of these viewpoints are important to take into consideration. Personally, I stand on the line: let’s have a mix of both! What do you think?

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