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Art in a Literate Society

Jun, 2003

FOR ALL ITS obvious advantages — and there are many, to be sure — living in a literate society does have a down side — especially when the artform of writing gains ascendancy over all of the other communicative arts. We pride ourselves on the fact that most Americans are, if not lettered, at the very least conversant with the rudiments of reading and writing. A glance at any newsstand gives ample evidence of this. The problem is when we feel that such competence in the use of language is the end-all of a modern civilization. We forget that the language arts — whether written or spoken — are not the only means for mankind to communicate. What of the visual arts? Of music? Of dance? These are also means of communication and, if history is correct, they are means that predate language by millennia and, for many, more viscerally direct than that of words. As far as we can tell, man’s use of symbolic images was around for a very long time before someone invented the grunts and signs that signified an alphabet and, by extension, a language. Why the language arts overshadowed the others is, I suppose, anyone’s guess — yet the fact remains that, although we are not overly concerned when our children’s education is short on the "fine arts," we are up in arms when they cannot read or write. This is more than passing strange. Once, in conversation, Will Barnet said to me that "one word is worth a thousand pictures," making reference to the authority of today’s art critic. When I asked him how come the critic has managed to gain such power, he theorized that institutions of learning had made great strides in teaching us to read words but had made little headway in teaching us how to "read" a painting. I suppose the same might be said of "reading" a dance or a piece of music. Because of our facility with language, people have come to depend on the word to guide them in the understanding of non-verbal experience. They trust the critic to tell them which visual artist to appreciate, which music to listen to, which dance we ought to go see. So dependent on the word have we become that many actually have come to believe that reading about a picture, a piece of music, or a dance program allows them to better appreciate or understand it. Indeed, there are even people who have been schooled to rely on Cliff Notes — words to understand other words. Yet, for all its vaunted efficacy, the word is a poor substitute for communicating some very basic human needs, desires, and experiences — for some, the very stuff of aesthetics. One need only witness how tenuous our position can be in our over-dependence upon language by considering our modern-day Tower of Babel — the UN. When push comes to shove — as it invariably does in realpolitik — the bomb is always louder than the word no matter how eloquently we wax. Still, we persist in considering the use of this faulty tool the very mark of a cultured person. Consider, however, that we hold on to old sayings such as "music soothes the savage breast" — and, with very good reason, for as in any old adage, there is enough wisdom embedded in it to make it endure. Only someone who has tried to reason with a savage — that is, used words on him — can know how utterly inadequate the word can be. I’m not uncovering any new ground here. I’m confident that most of you have received some kind of communication from listening to a Chopin etude, or by standing in the center of St. Peter’s in Rome, or by viewing Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation — without understanding a word of the German, Italian or Flemish languages. You all know this — and yet, so powerful is the hold of language on our consciousness that time and again we distrust our eyes and ears — and hearts — when confronted with art.

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