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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Words and images

A course I took a few years ago entitled "Why Poetry Matters" made me think about how much poetry surrounds us in the way of song lyrics. Most of it is bad poetry, I would admit, but it's poetry nevertheless. In addition to song lyrics, we are bombarded with words constantly from radio and TV in addition to from people in our work and personal lives. Regarding written communication, the internet has added a huge amount on top of traditional newspapers, magazines, and books.

In a similar fashion, the art history course I'm currently taking makes me muse about how many images modern humans see daily. Movies, television, publications and, once again, the internet give our eyes a constant stream of images. With a few keyboard strokes, people can view images of the paintings of the great masters that once were available only to the select few owners and their friends.

I have read that it's been estimated that about 80 billion humans have lived on earth. That estimate depends on, among other factors, the length of time Homo Sapiens have existed, but I believe the current generally accepted figure is 250,000 years. What is certain is that for most of those years the amount of words and images available to humans was infinitely smaller than what it is today. The images drawn on the walls of caves in Lascaux 17,000 years ago and in Chauvet 30,000 years ago must have been regarded as precious to those who saw them. The number of animals in the Lascaux paintings have been speculated to represent either past hunting experiences or rituals to bring about the success of future hunts. Words were scarce as well since it's been just a few thousand years that they have been stored in writing. Oral story-telling was valued, and I envision extended families huddling around a fire at night listening to a practiced speaker recounting old tales of valor. This is how the Homeric epics were handed down.

So now we're comparatively wealthy in words and images, but maybe that abundance has cheapened the product. Here, I'm thinking of the internet again. Anyone with a computer can throw words out there, and a great deal of that content is simply false while much of the rest is cruel, crude or both. (I'm not oblivious that I'm adding to the total.) Images flood us as well, both still and motion, but the value of certain iconic images gets diminished in that flood. A few weeks ago in the art history class, we were analyzing Di Vinci's "Mona Lisa", and I realized the masterpiece has been reproduced and parodied so often in my lifetime that studying it as a painting was difficult for me.

Being provided with so many words and images makes us not spend time on any one of them. Often I hear complaints that people don't fully read e-mails and miss important points. The average museum visitor spends about 17 seconds on each work of art they view. We feel we have to hurry through all these words and images, so we have trouble adjusting to the ones that deserve plenty of time. The professor of the poetry class recommended letting a poem "flow over you" without getting too hung up on trying to figure out the meaning of each line and then going back for analysis. The art history professor had us study an established six step process: look, observe, see, describe, analyze, and interpret, with each of those steps explained.

Maybe the rule should be to devote the time to taking in an image or a written or oral statement as appropriate to how much time was expended in the creation.

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