A thousand and one words

artcriticA few days ago, a friend noted in a conversation comparing literary and art critics that it is remarkable how different positions of authority these two have among the practitioners of their respective trade. Writers tend to feel a mixture of contempt and superiority towards the critic of literature, while the art critic reigns supreme and can often make or break even an artist of some renown and experience, not to mention young and unknown ones.

When discussing possible reasons for that we arrived at a thought that maybe this is a reflection of how textual our Western culture really has become. Although pretty much everyone would agree that both music and visual culture are in no way lesser forms than literature or poetry, we somehow still tend to reduce them to their interpretations which are always textual, linguistic. Even realistic paintings are supposed to tell a story, abstract art must have a meaning. And while the same is certainly true for a work of literature, they are understood to be able to stand on their own, be accessible without a mediator. In case of poetry this becomes especially pronounced – it is almost a sign of bad taste to discuss the meaning of a poem or the technique of a poet when reviewing, for instance, a new collection of poems, while it is a commonplace with art exhibitions.

This is strangely at odds with a piece of proverbial wisdom about a picture being worth a thousand words. But maybe the key is in a remark made by John McCarthy: “As the Chinese say, 1001 words is worth more than a picture.”

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