Art and Interfaces, Agatha Christie-style


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If there is one thing that has been made clear over the past months, it is that there is a broad range of interfaces, some of which are more helpful for interpretation than others. At one end of the spectrum, you might have an isolated artwork. Particularly in modern and contemporary art, it can be difficult–sometimes impossible–to uncover the meaning of an artwork without knowing its context. On the other end you have the kind of information often presented in art history textbooks: not only a deep dive into the circumstances surrounding an artist or artwork, but a straightforward assertion of meaning: X symbol/image/painting represents Y.

A well-designed interface has to find a balance. When done poorly, you end up with a very limited interfaces–something like Google Arts and Culture or the Hirshhorn 80s exhibit, which offer some context but not quite enough to be useful. When done well, the interface exposes the nodes in the network surrounding the artwork and explains the connections between those nodes, as the Phillips Collection’s Klee exhibit did. It provides enough context to make the artwork accessible: Who are the major players? What was going on in the artworld at the time? What events in the world was the artist reacting to?

What it avoids, however, is the didactic presentation of interpretation as a given. A good interface is like a good mystery novel: you have all the clues you need to figure everything out, but it takes some thought to put it together. If you’ve followed along well, the meanings–just like the solution to a whodunnit–will be clear by the time you reach the end of the interface.

That said, to continue the metaphor, an ideal interface would give the option for further guidance. Sometimes a reader would rather follow along as Hercule Poirot solves a murder than solve it themselves; similarly, not all art viewers are interested in teasing out the meanings in each piece. This is where digital interfaces can come in handy, as they allow users to choose just how much information they want, unlike a gallery context where the space prohibits using too much text, or a museum catalog where it’s hard to get just a surface-level view. A series of options on a website or an app can offer viewers exactly what they need: an analysis of an artwork from an expert, or just enough context that they can pick up the magnifying glass and start investigating for themselves.