On Man’s Quest for Meaning

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I remember fondly the innocent times when the British tabloids faithfully provided a bracing dose of spleen for their readers over their breakfast fry-ups. Usually this took the form of a sensational report about an abused dog or a tortured cat. Times have changed, and I don’t know who to blame for evolution in British consciousness—Fergie and Di and their scandals? Margaret Thatcher? The Internet? No matter. Spleen is alive and well in British journalism, in examples of a much higher order than cats and dogs, and in publications with reputations far above the tabloids. The Daily Telegraph, followed by a tabloid, The Mail, and the Guardian, ran a tear-provoking story about the wholesale slaughter of words by the editors of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, perhaps more of an orderly mass execution, given the authority of the University Press, than a martyrdom of the ten thousand. Words associated with the nature, the countryside, animals, vegetables, flowers, fish, the nobility, royalty, folkloric creatures like elves and goblins, Christmas, and the Christian religion. Vineeta Gupta, the head of children’s dictionaries at Oxford University Press, was quoted: “When you look back at older versions of dictionaries, there were lots of examples of flowers for instance. That was because many children lived in semi-rural environments and saw the seasons. Nowadays, the environment has changed. We are also much more multicultural. People don’t go to Church as often as before. Our understanding of religion is within multiculturalism, which is why some words such as “Pentecost” or “Whitsun” would have been in 20 years ago but not now.”

Watch Ali G. in da Countryside

The crass utilitarianism of Ms. Gupta’s premise is shocking in itself. Are we to believe that children have no use for words related to things which are not contained within their immediate sphere of experience? If the children should by some chance find themselves in the countryside is their experience to be an adventure in vocabulary like Ali G.’s? (Although Ali may not be able to follow the gardner in Richard II, he has cleverly developed his own vocabulary for describing the British Isles, borrowing terminology from female anatomy.) Are we to assume that their teachers will never expose them to a poem about the country? Both “horse chestnut” and “conker” are out. Is the time-honored children’s game extinct, replaced by MP3 Players and chatrooms? Are food words to be restricted to what they will find on McDonald’s menu, where spinach and cauliflower are not mentioned by name, and oats, mint, beetroot, turnips, and walnuts are not served. However, bacon plays a prominent role in McDonald’s cuisine, and that word is out, as are dukes and duchesses, elves and goblins, vicars, bishops, monks and nuns, saints and the devil himself. If piglet is out, that rules out Winnie the Pooh and Beatrix Potter, where readers encounter a certain Pigling Bland. With stoats and weasels, out goes The Wind in the Willows. So does Christmas, with carols, holly, mistletoe, and crackers. In their place come voicemail, database, bullet point, celebrity, bungee jumping, committee, compulsory, interdependent, biodegradable, emotion, dyslexic, classify, and chronological. And I thought they’d stopped teaching dates in school! Perhaps that’s only here in the US.

As English dictionaries developed, they performed dual roles, descriptive and prescriptive. Their role was to describe the language as it lived in people’s mouths and on paper, and also to prescribe correct usage and spelling, even to act as a mild brake on the constant evolution of the language, because if meanings change too fast or become excessively localized, their function as tools of communication is compromised. For that reason not all of us could understand everything Ali G. was saying right at the beginning.

The Oxford editors protest that these changes are merely practical, based on the limitations of what seven- to nine-year-olds can hold in their hands. But dictionaries are cultural documents, and the elimination of these words (and they are beautiful words!) from a children’s dictionary documents a significant event in the evolution of consciousness. In his History in English Words
Owen Barfield showed how certain words and groups of words appeared in the language in specific historical contexts, and they reflect the mentality of the time. For example, the proscribed Christian vocabulary, entered the language, largely via Latin, when Christianity was introduced into Britain in the seventh century A.D. Later, in the high middle ages, as courtly love and the poetry associated with it adopted religious vocabulary—words like passion and lady itself—to express devotion to the beloved lady, those words acquired a whole new range of meaning and function. Again, in a chapter called “Personality and Reason,” Barfield discusses an intriguing array of adjectives which express our feelings about the individual and experience, especially communications with others (“describing external things not objectively, from their own point of view, but purely by the effects they produce on other human beings”): sentimental, amusing, boring, interesting, entrancing, consciousness, character, and personify (N.B. 1728 E. CHAMBERS, Cyclopaedia. (at cited word), The Poets have personified all the Passions; and made Divinities of them.”). Among these Barfield includes fascinating—not entirely justly, since it had appeared as an adjective already in the reign of Charles I. The verb on which it is based first appears in the 1590’s, as part of the language of witchcraft, meaning “to cast a spell.” A metaphorical sense adhered to all forms of the word through the eighteenth century, disappearing only under the rationalism of the Victorian age. For example, when the miscellaneous writer, Richard J. Sullivan, uses the phrase “bewitching and fascinating flowers” the original sense of “fascinating” is made clear by its doublet. What’s more, it illustrates the sense of wonder and overpowering experience in the enjoyment of flowers, which, at least in their specific genera, the Oxford editors no longer consider essential for juvenile minds. You may find it even more illuminating to know that this OED quotation comes from a work entitled Views on Nature, in Letters to a Traveller among the Alps, with Reflections on the Atheistical Philosophy now Exemplified in France. From this we may infer that already in 1794 flowers were on their way out and our forebears were on our way to the present state of things.

But, looking backward, we can relish the fact that this critic of the Enlightenment still felt to glamour of witchcraft in the word “fascinating.” For the ancient Romans, at least the more superstitious among them, fascinus meant both the material token of a witch’s spell or the phallic symbol which could be worn round the neck to ward them off—an object which can still be seen today in parts of Italy, New York City, and other places, hanging from rear view mirrors in taxicabs. If Global English is becoming impoverished of its metaphorical sap, gestures have retained more of their atavistic force, as we have just witnessed in the hurling of shoes at the President of the United States during his recent surprise visit to Iraq. Anyone can divine a rough sense of the meaning of the act, and its accompanying speech, “This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!” but it gains amplitude when we know that in Iraqi culture it is the very worst kind of insult, implying that the recipient is beneath the dirt on the sole of one’s shoe. The dog is also an especially ill-favored animal—especially loathed by Iraqis for the creatures introduced into their homes by occupying American troops. Muntader al-Zaidi, the 29-year-old journalist who did the deed, is regarded as a hero in Iraq and much of the Arab world and is well on his way to becoming one in the United States, where many people would like to have made the same gesture. If we can still see some Anglo-Saxon-tinted humor in the act, it should be tempered by the knowledge that Mr. al-Zaidi is still in custody, and that he may possibly have suffered injury in his arrest, interrogation, and detainment. The American-backed Iraqi authorities would be well-advised to treat him well. Muntader al-Zaidi has our sympathy and respect.

Bush’s response was interesting. Nicholas Kristof, writing in his New York Times Blog, ironically (I hope.) called him a “pretty good sport”. The president supposedly responsible for the Valerie Plame Wilson affair is of course anything but. His remarks after the event expressing his indifference to the meaning of the shoe-throwing only demonstrated his lack of curiosity, and were fundamentally an insult to Iraqi sentiments. President Bush wants us to know that he is above such things, because he is led by God. He isn’t even royalty, but he believes in his own divine right. I think Bush appreciated al-Zaidi’s action as communication, and recognized a kindred soul. In early 2002 I was teaching a course on the English language. In the wake of 9/11, members of the administration were wreaking havoc on the English language, and of course the president was his inimitable self in that regard, and I asked my students to listen to the State of the Union address, paying special attention to rhetorical devices. There was little to discuss in the end, because the linguistically challenged chief of state believes in showing rather than telling. In any case he now has one more thing in common with his nemesis, Saddam Hussein. Shoes were thrown at the Iraqi leader’s statues as they were toppled. Finally a moment of truth has come in his presidency. Ronald Reagan is remembered as the “Teflon president.” Now we know how good Bush is at ducking.

But back to our pampered motherland, where museums are rarely looted, and if they are undermined, they are undermined from within. Various factors—misguidedly populist museum directors, business-minded boards, NEA policies, pop culture and the decline of education, came together over the past twenty-five to thirty years to create a fashion for “user-friendliness” in cultural institutions. This gained momentum from the economic difficulties of the 1970’s and early 1980’s, when many opera houses, museums, and symphonies had to struggle to survive. Donors and boards, who were eager to bestow some of their own wisdom on the art functionaries they employed, expressed a willingness to help only those who helped themselves, that is, staffs who were willing to fill their coffers with the proceeds of the turnstile, the gift shop, and support groups, recruited aggressively from among the growing high-earning younger sectors of the business world—yuppies, technology billionaires, financial manipulators, and so forth. Development departments outstripped the curatorial staff in numbers, salary, and influence. In some cases they were merged or interconnected with education departments. In the process some institutions sold their minds along with their souls. For years there has been plenty to read about the dumbing-down of all aspects of culture, from newspapers and the movies to symphony orchestras and museums.[1]

Hilton Kramer, before he acquired a bully pulpit in The New Criterion and became a pompous bore—and after, I must admit—carried on a brave campaign against the censorship of intelligence in art museums and other cultural institutions. In this he was largely right, although over the years, Kramer and his followers have done the arts a disservice in associating traditional values with conservative politics, as if we were making a political statement by visiting a beautiful exhibition of old master drawings and passing over some urgently relevant installation which offered, for example, little more to look at than a pile of old shoes…or the shiny blobs of silver in Simon Starling’s piously self-serving “immensely enlarged sculptural phenomenon,” as Mass MoCA ungrammatically describes The Nanjing Particles. The New Criterion and the New York Studio School have been hothouses for such beliefs, as if learning to draw were an even more extremist act than appreciating the drawings of dead European male artists who served the Church. Certainly one of the most egregious shibboleths in the museum world is the notion that drawings are elitist by nature, I suppose because wealthy people have collected them and they cannot be displayed constantly before the public. They are also small and usually discreet in color, supposedly lacking in popular appeal. On the principle of “bang for a buck” it is used as an excuse not to build collections of drawings or to mount exhibitions of them.

In general, museums began to behave as if they were embarrassed by quality and by the way in which older works of art become the object of intelligent study. I once gave a tour of an old master drawing exhibition to a prominent dealer in contemporary art, who in amazement kept repeating, “Boy, these things have a lot of history. They’ve got history…” as if it were a tangible aspect of the works of art—not color, as it functions in an image, but the color of the paper or the color of the chalk or ink. As the trend of dumbing-down marched on, education departments exercised a new prestige and power as custodians of public ignorance. No wall texts or pamphlets were allowed to aim above a sixth-grade (in practice third-grade) level, producing such enlightening statements as “This beautiful statue lacks a head,” or

In both of these paintings, the composition (that is, the arrangement of the people and things on the canvas) is dominated by a woman wearing blue, who sits in the brightest area of the scene. Both women hold one hand to their breasts and extend the other.

Also both paintings have men who stare with wide open eyes and mouths. These are important parts of what the two artists mean with their pictures.

—What do you think their meaning is?

—Do you think the artists are alike or different?

I did not make either up. They are both labels which were mounted on the gallery walls of a distinguished art museum in the early 1990’s. The premise seems to be that the public are puzzled and resentful when offered information they don’t already know, which is of course assumed to be very little. Like President Bush, the average museum-goer thinks that what he or she doesn’t know can’t hurt him. At several museums, the Getty Foundation generously funded a campaign to explore public ignorance through questionnaires and focus groups, as if a new vodka cooler were being readied for market. The focus groups, secretly videotaped from behind a two-way mirror, were fascinating with blue-collar Philadelphians showing themselves to be more museum-savvy than college-educated Angeleno yuppies. Our museum also hired dumbing-down consultants to teach us how to write labels. (To those of you in museum studies: a dumbing-down consultant makes a lot more money than a curator. For a modest proposal regarding labels from one of these consultants, click here.) One respected senior curator observed that museum functionaries will take anything seriously if there is money attached to it, and that all a museum visitor needed to relate to works of art was an attribution, a date, a location, and perhaps some modest indulgence in alcohol.

After a several years when there seemed to be no hope, a reaction established itself. James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, established a rallying-point in his public and published statements on the subject. Some major museums refrained from going all the way. Philippe de Montebello’s Met and the much-reviled Malcom Roger’s MFA have continued to offer interesting and scholarly exhibitions along with the Impressionist paintings and fashion shows which are cynically offered to attract the general public. Still the tacky shops which often give the public their final memory of an exhibition are a sorry sight, as well as the thought that all some visitors may take away with them is some manufactured gewgaw that travesties a work of art in the exhibition.

To get an idea of this condescending mentality one has only to look at the Wadsworth Athenaeum website. I might have mentioned the Cleveland Museum of Art, but I see that it has recently been redesigned with much, but not all, of its dumb-talk removed—a sign that dumbing-down is going out of fashion. Or you might visit the Clark’s current exhibition of Italian drawings, Drawn to Drama, and read the text labels, which were written in the grand tradition described above.[2] The odd disquisition on the meaning of the nude in its application to a classical god or a saint undergoing torture is a good starting-point for the museological anthropologist. Of course it avoids any mention of the possibly homoerotic qualities of Roncalli’s drawing of a nude boy next to which it stands, or that an anatomical study of a nude figure might have been made in the preparation of a figure which is clothed in the final work. Such a nude would then be devoid of meaning, which in many drawings is considered a virtue. Pierre Rosenberg has observed that figure drawings often appeal to people today, because they are free from attributes, which in the finished work might strike many viewers as distasteful or offensive. Just imagine the bloodthirsty executioner standing next to the beautiful nude figure by Guercino in the exhibition, brandishing the knife he will use to flay the helpless old man. For some Christ on the cross is more than enough, while a loin-clothed figure without a cross can be enjoyed simply as a nude. Past interpretations of Impressionist landscapes or Mondrian abstractions presented them as meaningless images, nothing more than a sunny day in the country or non-objective patterns, both suitable as very expensive home decor. During my years in the art market, I was always amused at how dealers would describe dead saints as merely napping. (I’ve done it myself.) Some of the Drawn to Drama labels are similarly shy about identifying the odd saint or the Virgin Mary. And when I find a museum that can refrain from making stupid puns on various forms of the word “draw,” I’ll give it a twenty dollar donation.

[1] I do not agree with The New Criterion that Peter Gelb has been dumbing-down the Metropolitan Opera. The programs are perhaps thinner on background than before, but they were never very informative. The HD projections are great fun. And he has been successful in bringing more people in, although he economic situation has put a damper on it.

[2] If you want to enjoy this otherwise very beautiful exhibition, do NOT read the text labels. For an equally obnoxious presentation of an interesting idea, see the Clark’s 2006 exhibition, Paper Trails, in which foot prints quided visitors around the exhibition.

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