The Word/Image Continuum

Being at home in a layered reality…The view through the rooms in Stephanie’s magical Rockport home

I’ve confessed here before to the paradox at the core of my art making and blog writing persona: I don’t believe art can be parsed and analyzed in language the way other topics can be. But there are words and languaged explorations that inhabit the borders of that non-languaged land and are of interest and value. This blog is about the content that lives in that liminal zone, bordering the border and at home along that edge.

Laurie Fendrich is a blogger on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brainstorm site and has written about the “deafening silence” she encounters whenever she writes about art. When the topic is politics, the switchboard lights up and everyone wants to log in on their opinion. Why so little commentary when the topic is art?

A lot of people can’t understand how art of any kind conveys meaning. At its best, it seems to sit there, or hang there, waiting to be contemplated for some sort of aesthetic pleasure. What else is there to say about it? At the same time, many are terribly intimidated by art—especially modern and contemporary art. They find they don’t like it, but worse, they’re annoyed that they don’t “get” it. It seems as if it’s part of a club they aren’t allowed to join. Tethered as they are to their preconceived ideas about what a painting should do (it should be beautiful, or at least good-looking, or it should tell a story, or be noble, or be about flowers, or the Bible), a lot of people think modern and contemporary art is nothing but one enormous joke. Since this is hardly the kind of thing sophisticated people want to admit, they prefer to keep quiet about the subject.

But Fendrich goes on to point out another aspect that impacts public interaction with the visual arts. This is one that particularly resonates with my views:

For aesthetic taste to broaden generally requires a lot of serious, direct experience with art—lots of time hanging around museums, galleries and artists’ studios. It helps to read about art, or listen and talk to people who love it, or are at least involved in it. Yet even then, and even among the educated elite, only a relatively small group of people do any of these things on any kind of regular basis. People in the humanities (where you’d think you’d find a lot of people who pay attention to art) are frequently just as alienated, flummoxed or indifferent to art as the masses that are obsessed with pop culture. The stock and trade of academics is words, not images, and for all their ability to analyze culture, academics are mostly blissfully ignorant of what it takes to make something that becomes a part of culture—a work of art, or a product of scientific inquiry and experiment. For all their study of ideas and actions (artistic or otherwise), and all their inventing of explanations and theories about what creative people do, in both art and science, they rarely ever try their hands at creative work.

On the consistently interesting blog Real Clear Arts, Judith H. Dobrzynski has written a thoughtful response to the difference between talking about politics and talking about art:

Fendrich almost makes that reticence a virtue as she dissects why everyone feels so free and almost obligated to talk about politics: “For most of us, talking about politics has become merely another means of self-expression — another way to yell (if we’re bullies), rant (if we’re full of tension), sound reasonable (if we’re nice people).”

But that has consequences: “People eagerly opine about politics because talking about politics today has deteriorated into nothing but a game of chatter–a way of responding to the unsettling modern world that seems so devoid of much that’s beautiful or good.”

So cheer up, art-lovers. Would you rather have a lot of people blather on and on about something, even when they don’t know much, or remain quiet because they don’t know much?

More specific to my particular concerns, a comment on Dobrzynski’s blog left by “Joan” captures many of my feelings with this thoughtful note:

The only language that really touches the purposes or heart of art is poetry, not analysis. Why? Because a work of art isn’t a response to a rational question. I don’t mean by that the arts are irrational. If a work of art does emerge from thinking, it is born from the place where thinking comes to a sort of intellectual dead end past which it can’t verbally go. Is America so materialistic it has forgotten that there is meaning apart from rational thought or the work and progress of science and technology?…The heart of art is non-verbal, experiential, practical, and non-commercial. Why blab about it- unless you’re an art student or artist talking to other artists, deeply involved in discovery about what it is and how it is, that you are doing what you are doing??

One Reply to “The Word/Image Continuum”

  1. Excellent post, Deb. The perspectives are thoughtful and thought-provoking and would make for great discussion around the dinner table (or anywhere).

    Dobrzynski’s quote at the end about poetry particularly interests me, because I hear so many people make the argument that they don’t know how to talk about a poem they’ve read, to say why they like it or not, whether they understand it or not; they think they need to be able to explain whatever it is about a poem that moves them or troubles them or seems difficult. I do think that when a person has a deeply spiritual (emotional) response to a work of art, a poem, etc., he or she naturally wants to share the experience, and so turns to language to do so; I can understand someone becoming frustrated at not being able to put in words that kind of response.

    I do wish people would give themselves the privilege of looking and responding to art or poetry on its own terms and on their own terms, and not because they’ve been told the work should be viewed or read a certain way.

    It would help, too, I think, to see an emphasis in education on arts appreciation.

    Our church is having an arts festival in a few weeks and one of the members who is a painter is going to speak about discovering the richness art can bring to one’s life. He’s been working with the elderly and tells some wonderful anecdotes about changes in those who overcome their hesitancies and fears about talking about and making art.

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