Didja miss me? You know you did. After a week and change of goofing off, I have a good bit of lost time to make up pissing on other people’s parades. Let’s start with Terry Teachout’s. Terry asks his co-blogger, Our Girl in Chicago, and, one presumes, the rest of us, to ponder the following questions:
(1) What book have you owned longestthe actual copy, I mean?
(2) If you could wish a famous painting out of existence, what would it be?
(3) If you had to live in a film, what would it be?
(4) If you had to live in a song, what would it be?
(5) Whats the saddest work of art you know? And does experiencing it make you similarly sad?
Question 1 is very good. Questions 2 through 5 have likely raised Lord Snow from the dead and set him sighing about the Two Cultures all over again, and I’m giving out demerits to, or at least withholding little gold stars from, any blogger who ups and answers these questions without a considerable preamble. (Oooh. Demerits. My little list already includes at least one guy who knows better.) Questions like these are why many serious people believe, though they are usually too polite to say so, that art talk should be confined to cocktail parties and teatime at the ladies’ auxiliary.
Question 1 is good principally because it is unambiguous. If you gather a large sample of answers it will be with some assurance that they are mostly to the same question. This is the rock-bottom requirement for intelligent discussion of any topic, and a shocking amount of ink has been spilled in literary criticism, even at a very high level, because it is so seldom met.
I’ll even answer Question 1 myself before proceeding because that’s the kind of sport I am. It’s Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, illustrated by Jules Feiffer, which I’ve owned since the age of seven or so and which was my favorite until Dostoevsky came along at 13 to upend my universe. In The Phantom Tollbooth Milo, a bored and as drawn by Feiffer impossibly dour child, receives a gift of a magic tollbooth that transports him to an extremely Platonic kingdom of blooming buzzing words and numbers, where he receives a great many valuable lessons, including one bearing on today’s topic. He encounters four doors, each with a nameplate: “The Dwarf,” “The Giant,” “The Fat Man,” “The Thin Man.” He knocks on each door and the same ordinary-looking man answers each time, with the same explanation: “I’m the world’s tallest dwarf — shortest giant — thinnest fat man — fattest thin man.”
Question 2 is the world’s fattest thin question. Interpreted the obvious way — which famous painting do you like least? — its results will not be interesting. I think this is the most hideous famous painting in the history of the world, and I’ve got my reasons. You think something else and you have yours. We part amicably and unenlightened, having exchanged opinions. Conversation is not an exchange of opinion, it is a sifting of opinion. Unfortunately Jacques Barzun said that, not me.
One possible reinterpretation is: which painting do you think has had the most baleful influence? We still have matters to clear up. If I excise, say, Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon from art history, do I kill only the picture or do I kill its progeny too, all the pictures that could never have been painted without it? Is it possible at once to admire a painting and deplore its influence? It’s certainly possible in literature; consider Ulysses, Madame Bovary, and Paradise Lost, all great masterpieces, all catastrophic influences.
You may wonder why Terry didn’t put the question as I did when he is obviously perfectly capable of doing so. I suspect that he found it too forbidding. To answer you would need to know quite a deal of art history, and then think some on top of that. I wouldn’t consider myself, for instance, with my undergraduate background in art history, up to scratch. But Question 2, in its actual, cuddly phrasing, invites all comers. All you have to do is dislike something to play, and we can all manage that.
Several questions precede Question 3, including, but not limited to: What does it mean to “live” in a film? Do we have to live the backstory too? As which character, since, as the social theorist Mel Brooks has noted, it’s good to be the king? Do we have Wardrobe privileges? Most important, is lunch catered? I’m going to have beg off Question 4, since I’m pretty sure songs never cater lunch.
Terry’s conscience finally pricks him into an explanation at Question 5 — strangely, as it’s the clearest of any of the last four. Asking where “sadness” resides if not in the mind of the viewer is a useful question. Asking which work of art provokes this emotion in you is a clear and unthreatening question. Conjugating these questions can lead only to confusion.
NORML, the pot-legalization people, used to sell a T-shirt that read, “Free America. Drug-free America. Choose one.” Serious cultureblogging. Inclusive cultureblogging. Choose one. Not quite as catchy, but then I’m not in the T-shirt business.
(Update: Y’know, you try to slap a little sense into these kids these days and this is the thanks you get. I would not, however, dream of cracking wise about Terry’s knowledge of art history, which vastly exceeds my own. I meant to exclude myself from offering an intelligent answer to the question of which single painting exerted the worst influence. In fact Terry’s answer would be worth hearing in at least four arts, while I would be uninteresting outside of literature. Not everybody gets to play in every reindeer game, which was my point.)