Sunday, December 14, 2003

Big Words Suck


Kate Taylor has an interesting piece in yesterday's Globe & Mail. In a nutshell, my reading of it goes like this:

"News item: Astronomers have figured out a reason why the sky in Edvard Munch's The Scream is so cool. But who cares what astronomers think about art? They are by definition not qualified to talk, look or even think about art. Art should touch the heart, and if you don't get it, tough."

She uses big words like; "apogee," "quintessential," "reductivist," and "seminal," in order to prove her point. Her point being that she's writing about Art (notice the capital "A") and you're reading it.

Unfortunately, by using that line of thinking, any way to further an understanding of a piece of art, or cheap and easy way to get somebody to look at a piece of art, is bad. So much for using connoisseurship, deconstructivism, ethology, feminism, formalism, Freudian criticism, hermeneutics, historicism, Jungian criticism, Marxism, new historicism, semiotics, structuralism, or any other means to appreciate a painting (or poem, film, sculpture - you get the point).

From my perspective all of these are equally valid and kick-ass ways of talking about pretty things. Most people don't give a rat's ass about the things that are on walls (unless of course it offends them). If by chance, there is a particular star formation that then causes them to stop and look at a Van Gogh painting, instead of scanning the headline for how much it sold for at auction - Rock On! Brother!!

Granted I don't know what the hell Kristevan (Kristevian? Kristevanism? Kristevanist?) is. But I would sure as shooting figure it out and use to analyze paintings if my mom had decided that the 11th letter of the alphabet was a cooler letter than the third. Or if Mary Ann Caws had been my mom I might know what it means, too.

If you like the color pink, and as a consequence really, really like paintings (or movies, or songs, you get the idea) that have pink in them, this is a good thing. If, because of this unnatural attachment to Pantone 9301 U and its cousins, you summarily decide that every movie made before the Wizard of Oz sucks that's cool. Just because I really dig something doesn't mean that you have to.

The best part of this is that if your study of the Norwegian weather in 1883 gets somebody else to look at The Scream who otherwise wouldn't have (and my guess is that it did). That is one more person who is now enjoying the painting.

As a defense Ms. Taylor writes "The eager detectives who ferret out the scientific details of these artistic experiences always argue they don't mean to diminish the art, but that is the effect, however unintended, of their discoveries." Or if you would like the Zekespeak translation: Scientists hit you over the head that their way is the only way. Since their way is wrong, they should be stopped.

Munch himself wrote in his diary on 22 January 1892:

"I was walking along the road with two friends.
The sun was setting.
I felt a breath of melancholy -
Suddenly the sky turned blood-red.
I stopped, and leaned against the railing, deathly tired -
looking out across the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword
over the blue-black fjord and town.
My friends walked on - I stood there, trembling with fear.
And I sensed a great, infinite scream pass through nature."

In the explanation of The Scream at the museum on Norway, where the painting has hung since 1910, they write "The work depicts not so much an incident or a landscape as a state of mind. The drama is an inner one, and yet the subject is firmly anchored in the topography of Oslo - the view is from Nordstrand towards the two bays at the head of the Oslofjord, with Holmenkollen in the background." Sounds to me like getting a better grip on what was happening in Nordstrand wouldn't hurt.

Last I heard in order to be a scientist, you need to ask questions, and look for answers. That Q&A thing 99% of the time involves dialogue. Dialogue means talking about stuff. If that stuff is Art, - Rock On! Brother!! Talking about Art is ALWAYS good.

If Ms. Taylor had done some more research before she wrote, she would have discovered that Dr. Donald W. Olson, not only identified when and where Munch was when he painted, but that he had published his findings in Sky & Telescope - the most famous of the famous Art Magazines. I think that the other astronomers (professional, academic, and amateur) are talking about The Scream and other paintings just a little bit more than they did before.

Then finally, the thing that I got the biggest kick out of was discovering that Dr. Olson did the same thing with Troilus and Criseyde, man, I think I'm going to either get myself a telescope, or maybe hunker down with Chaucer, on a couch at the Nasjonalgalleriet.

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