A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

A couple of weeks ago, I was poking around Facebook when I stumbled across a video that one of my friends had posted: “How Art Can Save Your Soul,” by Alain de Botton. The only time I’d ever heard de Botton’s name before was when I worked at #OversizedBookstore, shelving A Week at the Airport. Every time I shelved Airport, I would look at it and think to myself how much I would like to read it.

It never happened.

So now I know almost nothing about Alain de Botton, other than that I assume he once spent a week at an airport and then wrote about the experience.

After watching “How Art Can Save Your Soul,” though, I’m back to wanting to read A Week at the Airport. Why? Because de Botton is brilliant.

Why am I sharing this with you? What does de Botton’s lecture about art have to do with book history? Everything, I argue. de Botton’s points don’t just apply to visual art, but also to book art. And when I say book art, I’m not just referring to the miniatures you see in Medieval manuscripts, or the woodcuts you see in incunabula – I’m referring to everything related to any book’s physicality. I’m talking about the book as art, not just because it includes drawings, but because it is a piece of art in itself.

At around 6:50, de Botton quotes/paraphrases Mark Rothko‘s response to a Time Magazine interviewer who is trying to understand what Rothko’s art does: “Look, what I’m trying to do with my works of art is… you’ve got sadness in you, I’ve got sadness in me, and my works of art are places where the two sadnesses can meet and therefore both of us need to feel less sad.” For Rothko, art serves as a means for emotional connection. However, as museums presented – and continue to present – his work, they failed to provide what de Botton calls “a productive frame with which to enter a relationship with that art.”

Now, to tie this back to book history.

The longer I study book history, the clearer it becomes to me that some scholars have completely lost (or rid themselves of?) the “frame” that lets them enter relationships with the books – the art – they’re analyzing. In an attempt to intellectualize a book, the scholar sometimes forgets to acknowledge that the book may have been made to be admired rather than intellectualized.

But, as Jean-Claude Carrière asserts in This Is Not the End of the Book (on page 159, for all you keeners!), “A work of art isn’t created a masterpiece, it becomes one… We can of course explain the great influence that Cervantes had on Kafka. But we can also, as Gerard Genette has conclusively shown, say that Kafka has had an influence on Cervantes. If I read Kafka before reading Cervantes, then through me and without my knowing it, Kafka will impact my reading of Quixote.” What Carrière is saying is that, while we do need to take time to appreciate the book as it was intended, our appreciations of books are inevitably influenced by other established interpretations. “Over time,” Umberto Eco agrees (also on page 159), “every book is overlaid with all the interpretations that have been made of it. We don’t read the same Shakespeare that Shakespeare wrote. Our Shakespeare is much richer than the Shakespeare that was read at the time. A masterpiece isn’t a masterpiece until it is well known and has absorbed all the interpretations to which is has given rise, which in turn make it what it is.”

Confused? Sorry – even I’m a little confused now. But I think what this all comes down to is just that we should always consider what the books we study were made for. Sure, we should consider established interpretations – after all, those interpretations help us understand what we’re studying. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that illuminated manuscripts ware made to dazzle, or that the Gutenberg Bibles are all uniquely illustrated and each copy thus evokes a different emotional response. These objects are for more than just studying. They’re for looking at. They’re for appreciating.

A couple of summers ago, I took a course on illuminated manuscripts. Our final assignment was to write a paper about what we thought the Book of Kells‘ intended use was, based on its physicality. Of course, we were working with a facsimile, but it was a pretty darn good facsimile, with holes in it and everything. However, when doing this assignment, I later found that I had been so determined to write my essay that I forgot to actually take some time to really look at the book. I never gave myself permission to establish a relationship with its incredible art. In short, I missed out on the experience of really seeing the Book of Kells. I missed out on the experience of experiencing it.

That’s what I’m getting at.

Don’t ever lose the frame that lets you enter relationships with the books you study. If you do, there’s really no point in studying them at all.

2 thoughts on “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

  1. Hello Leah.

    I’m a current graduate (MFA) student writing his thesis on Mark Rothko. The quote about sadness – do you have a possible link to that interview? I’m having a very difficult time locating where the quote comes from and interestingly enough your post is the only post I have come across, so far, that makes ANY mention of its origin! Any help is tremendously appreciated, thank you!

    1. Thanks for getting in touch, Andrew.

      I unfortunately don’t have a source for that mention, as de Botton’s lecture doesn’t come with any citations, but I’m under the impression that it’s more of a paraphrase than a quote. Rothko mentioned his sadness a few times that I’m aware of, but never in such a straight-to-the-point way as de Botton says.

      Perhaps check out this article if you have access to JSTOR? https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.1086/663948.pdf (Erika Doss, ‘Makes Me Laugh, Makes Me Cry: Feelings and American Art’, American Art, 26.3 (2011), 2-8)

      Best of luck!

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