The shapes between us

Peter Campbell writes in the current LRB:

Inanimate things in museums – teacups from which no one drinks, pictures which will never again be bought and sold – can, as much as stuffed animals, make one think sadly of the time when they were alive. Modern curators know this and spend much time and money avoiding notions of dust, death and mummification. Even art museums do not cram everything in the reserve collection onto the walls. But in avoiding the confusion, heterogeneity and abundance of old-style museums like the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, some of what they shared with the street has gone: an ability to feed the imagination with unexplained, comical, sinister and melancholy juxtapositions, for example – the aspect of collecting the Surrealists exploited.

A well-designed and artistically curated set of exhibits, in other words, enables the viewer to experience the exhibition as a whole, rather than being constantly interrupted by lacrimae rerum for the lost use-value of each individual exhibit. However, in the exhibition that this form of curation creates – a single-minded, smoothly articulated conglomerate – more is lost than a melancholy evocation of the exhibits’ past life. This kind of exhibition turns the viewer into a passive spectator, receiving and absorbing an achieved whole rather than responding imaginatively to an assembly of disjointed parts.

This critique, it seems to me, is not that far from Adina‘s review of Walk the Line:

the unimaginative or condescending literalness of the movie is a good reminder of what I can’t stand about Hollywood style. It’s not hatred of emotion, or even melodrama. I loved Farewell My Concubine, which featured a damaged artist, unrequited love, drug addiction fueled by rejection, beautiful photography, and plenty of tragedy per foot of celluloid. The bits that the viewer needs to infer make all the difference.

Or, for that matter, Ellis’s argument here:

The first author opens up the thoughts of both his characters. Everything is controlled and explained. Meaning is processed for the reader. When the character speaks in German, she then helpfully provides an instant translation into English. The first author duly goes on to supply the reader with a sex scene.The second author seems about to supply a sex scene, then abruptly and unexpectedly denies that readerly expectation. Sketches displace sexual intercourse. Looking at sketches and making more sketches becomes more attractive than sex. What the woman thinks of this is withheld from the reader. We remain inside a single mind. There are no judgements made for us about the state of this mind. The reader has to process the writing and discover for herself where the meaning lies.

There is a difference in these two passages, I think, between writing (conventional, conformist, explanatory, offering the warmth of familiarity and shared values) and literature (incomplete, resonant, resisting familiarity and a single dimension of meaning).

(You’ll have to read the post to find out who the two writers are.)

The bits that the viewer needs to infer make all the difference. The meaning’s in the gaps – at least, that’s where you’re being treated as a thinking being, a participant in communication (which is always imperfect) and not a spectator of composed images.

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