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Rockwell's Tableaus.
December 7, 2009 2:29 PM   Subscribe

Norman Rockwell's research photos. Norman Rockwell commissioned photos (which he meticulously directed) and then painted those photos. Here are some of them.
posted by grumblebee (91 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite

 
Those are actually quite cool. It's neat to see that he took great liberties and only used the originals as source material, not an edict set in stone.
posted by cjorgensen at 2:38 PM on December 7, 2009


A silly quibble with your tags: the plural of tableau is tableaux, not tableaus.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:42 PM on December 7, 2009


It's astounding how recognizable the photos are; if you're familiar with his work, you recognize the painting that came from them immediately.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:42 PM on December 7, 2009


This is funny, because his paintings have always had a certain "traced from a photograph" quality to them that I've spotted in other work as well.
posted by dunkadunc at 2:46 PM on December 7, 2009


Oh wow, this is terrific.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 2:46 PM on December 7, 2009


Nice art.
Looks like it could be on the cover of a magazine
posted by Iron Rat at 2:47 PM on December 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


I take it back. I guess tableaus is acceptable.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:47 PM on December 7, 2009


For those interested be sure to visit the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. This FPP refers to the current exhibit there: Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera.
posted by ericb at 2:50 PM on December 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


As a victim of domestic violence myself, seeing his depiction of it in a "lighthearted" way really sickens me. Getting hit, going to work with the black eye, going to worthless "couples counseling", the whole nine yards of abuse. It's not fucking funny.

Rockwell's art is maudlin, mainstream pap, vacuous, soulless and cloyingly romantic. The Reader's Digest of fine art.

Fuck Norman Rockwell.
posted by Tube at 2:56 PM on December 7, 2009 [15 favorites]


BTW -- Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are avid fans and collectors of Rockwell's work.

"Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell From the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg" will be on exhibit at The Smithsonian American Art Museum from July 2, 2010, through Jan. 2, 2011.

Spielberg has been known to make references to Rockwell in his movies.

Example:
"In truth, the re-appreciation of Norman Rockwell has been going on for a while. Go back to Steven Spielberg’s 1987 film Empire of the Sun, and you’ll see a tableau early in the movie—a mother and father lovingly tucking in a boy (who happens to have been played by the young Christian Bale)—modeled explicitly upon Rockwell’s famous painting Freedom from Fear. Even back in the 80s, when the default hipster take on Rockwell was that he was a cornball moralist, at least a few people recognized his narrative acuity.
From -- Vanity Fair | October 2009: Norman Rockwell: Dead But Busier Than Ever.
posted by ericb at 2:59 PM on December 7, 2009


I was hoping for a photo of him sketching himself in the mirror.
posted by Bromius at 3:01 PM on December 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Next up: N.C. and Andrew Wyeth: Artists or Illustrators?
posted by ericb at 3:05 PM on December 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


This was very interesting and fun to see. I believe Rockwell stands in the upper pantheon of 20th Century American Artists. Just because his stuff is easy to enjoy at first glance doesn't mean it doesn't have depth and weight. I linked to some interesting deconstruction of Rockwell's illustrations in an earlier post.
posted by marxchivist at 3:07 PM on December 7, 2009


The marriage counselor one was actually unpublished: "Illustration intended for The Saturday Evening Post, c. 1963 but unpublished; offered to Ladies Home Journal, 1972, but unpublished"

It's neat to see that he took great liberties and only used the originals as source material, not an edict set in stone.

That same link also mentions that were 70 photos done as studies for that painting, with various variations. So the linked photos aren't necessarily "the original" in the way you might think.
posted by smackfu at 3:09 PM on December 7, 2009


Next up: N.C. and Andrew Wyeth: Artists or Illustrators?

Artists who sometimes did illustrations.
posted by marxchivist at 3:09 PM on December 7, 2009


These are really excellent. Seeing the photos helps you appreciate Rockwell's craft all the more. The guy never cuts a corner and fills his surface with all kinds of eye candy. Look at the carpet in the marriage counsellor's office, for instance.
Domestic violence is not funny. Agreed. Some of Rockwell's subject matter has not aged well. Agreed. So can we look at the pictures now?
posted by CCBC at 3:09 PM on December 7, 2009


Really interesting, and not at all surprising.
posted by fire&wings at 3:11 PM on December 7, 2009


This is actually really nifty. For all the saccharine nostalgia-porn of it, I can't help but like Rockwell's stuff.
posted by Scattercat at 3:14 PM on December 7, 2009


The Rockwell Museum is awesome, seconding the recommend if you happen to be in that area.
posted by Artw at 3:14 PM on December 7, 2009


The marriage counsellor one is pretty disturbing when you think about it.

Imagine it was a woman with a black eye and a man with a smug grin across his face. Would it still be charming and folksy Americana?
posted by pjdoland at 3:17 PM on December 7, 2009


Artists who sometimes did illustrations.

Exactly.

There are those who dismiss the 'realism' of Rockwell and the Wyeths as being crass, commercial "maudlin, mainstream pap, vacuous, soulless and cloyingly romantic" 'illustrations,' when actually they painted in a style of realism that has/had been treasured and appreciated by many throughtout art history.
posted by ericb at 3:18 PM on December 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


No. But if you painted it nw it wouldn't be charming Americana either. Old stuff often gets a pass because of cultural context.

Ralph Kramden threatening to punch Alice in the face wouldn't fly today either.
posted by Justinian at 3:19 PM on December 7, 2009


"Ralph Kramden threatening to punch Alice in the face wouldn't fly today either."

and Ricky and Lucy sleeping in twin beds would be considered kinky....
posted by HuronBob at 3:21 PM on December 7, 2009


Imagine it was a woman with a black eye and a man with a smug grin across his face. Would it still be charming and folksy Americana?

Just this past weekend on SNL.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:24 PM on December 7, 2009


holy shit, this is incredible! thanks for this.
posted by shmegegge at 3:26 PM on December 7, 2009


Really great. Thanks for posting it!
posted by brundlefly at 3:26 PM on December 7, 2009


Actually I found the marriage counselor photo/painting kind of fascinating. Firstly the emotions are completely different. In the photograph the woman looks worried, while the man looks kind of bored. In the painting the woman looks pissed, and the man looks like he's trying to not to care.

And the other thing is that the Font is almost right out of Mad Men

This is funny, because his paintings have always had a certain "traced from a photograph" quality to them that I've spotted in other work as well.

They're not really 'traced' at all. I mean, lots of bits of scenery are different. Even if the people look the same as they do in the photos, the scenery is different. The little girl on the train, for example. In the photo, she's alone, whereas in the painting the surroundings are much smaller and denser. There are a lot more people there, etc.
posted by delmoi at 3:27 PM on December 7, 2009


The marriage counsellor one is pretty disturbing when you think about it.

It's pretty subversive, inverting the power dynamic in marriages in 1950s America.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:28 PM on December 7, 2009 [7 favorites]


pjdoland: "Imagine it was a woman with a black eye and a man with a smug grin across his face. Would it still be charming and folksy Americana?"

but that's what makes all the difference. the reversal of oppression in our imaginations and in our artwork is part of the tradition of revolutionary and progressive thought and art.

mind you, this is not a commentary on Tube's feelings, above, in any way. Tube is free to feel however he or she wants and to hate rockwell as much as he or she cares to.
posted by shmegegge at 3:28 PM on December 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, this is a fine post. I highly recommend going to the Norman Rockwell Museum. Inappropriate marriage counseling paintings aside (especially considering how much more charming the initial photo is when there's no black eye), he was a genius and is an icon.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:29 PM on December 7, 2009


Calling his work mainstream is hardly a criticism. It's important to remember that most of his work was very commercial. He painted major magazine covers, if he hadn't been mainstream he would have been there. They weren't painted as fine art and then put on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. They were commissioned by the Post (or Life or whoever). You can say what you want about his subject matter, certainly he's about as kitchy americana as you can get, but his technique was amazing and his ability to capture the emotions in his subjects expressions is absolutely amazing.
posted by doctor_negative at 3:33 PM on December 7, 2009


The first photo-painting pair illustrates what I'd guess you'd call anti tobacco bowdlerization, which some make find refreshing after what the post office did to Robert Johnson and Jackson Pollock.
posted by king walnut at 3:35 PM on December 7, 2009


It's pretty subversive, inverting the power dynamic in marriages in 1950s America.

I don't know if you can call it subversive when that sort of "inversion" — the whole henpecked husband trope — was such a cliché. I'm not saying you're wrong; I'm just not convinced.

In the past, I've had versions of this trope from the 50s and 60s strike me as defending the status quo: "Well, boys, we all know who's really in charge" sounds suspiciously like "Everyone knows those ladies are better off where they are." I don't know that this is how they would have read at the time, and that Norman Rockwell painting certainly isn't taking a stand on the issue either way. All I'm saying is, wife-bonks-husband isn't necessarily such a subversive thing to paint.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:44 PM on December 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Rockwell's art is maudlin, mainstream pap, vacuous, soulless and cloyingly romantic. The Reader's Digest of fine art.

Really, all of his art? I agree with you on that piece (though I do find it subversive, and I can see where it was trying to go though I think it took a terribly wrong turn around the wife's coy face, it still bothers me a lot) but would you really call this 1964 piece, 'The Problem We All Live With' maudlin, vacuous, soulless? A lot of his art has pretty deep social commentary, even when you disagree with the message it's pushing.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:47 PM on December 7, 2009 [6 favorites]


(Plus what doc negative said. I'm interested in the political implications of the painting totally aside from the question of whether it's good or okay to like or whatever. Dude was crazy skilled, and I admire the hell out of the facial expressions in that painting. No sense throwing that away just because of the AMIRITE-FELLAS vibe — which I think we can all sort of tune out by now anyway; it's not like anyone's looking to Norman fucking Rockwell anymore for validation of their gender politics.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:48 PM on December 7, 2009


Sorry, messed up link: Here.

This one, too.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:49 PM on December 7, 2009


Bad link Solon and Thanks, here's another
posted by Think_Long at 3:50 PM on December 7, 2009


It used to be an interesting fact that the cop in the "The Runaway" was none other that William "Officer Obie" Obanhein of the Stockbridge, Mass. police dept. and Alice's Restaurant (both the record and the film).

Interesting and wrong.

Turns out Obie did pose for Rockwell, but for "Policman with Boys", not for "The Runaway". That was Mass. State Trooper Richard Clemens.
posted by Herodios at 3:50 PM on December 7, 2009


The PDN link in the FPP shows a lot of the photographs without their accompanying painting. For more side-by-side comparisons see the NPR article which PDN linked to.
posted by anazgnos at 3:51 PM on December 7, 2009


Also, anyone think the lynchers in Southern Justie kind of look like aliens or something?

I'm not sure what I'm seeing with the ears there, if it's supposed to be a hood or what.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:57 PM on December 7, 2009


or a jaunty cap, perhaps
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:57 PM on December 7, 2009


Stay tuned. This is just a preview. The Norman Rockwell museum is putting 18,000 of these photos online early next year. (It sez here.)
posted by beagle at 4:12 PM on December 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this. I have long been a fan of Rockwell, despite his undeserved reputation as a purveyor of saccharine pap (as expressed above.) I think illustrators like Rockwell have been largely unsung as the real artists that they are -- to the degree that the above-mentioned N.C. Wyeth, one of the finest illustrators that ever lived, was ashamed of the work he did and shoved it aside in later life to try to do "real" art. Needless to say, it wasn't nearly as interesting or compelling as his early works of illustration.

Rockwell did indeed have something to say, and whether we're into his message or not, he was a technical whiz who also managed to create something recognizable and real. I'm glad he's getting positive critical attention; he's worth it.

And for those who are interested in illustration art, I highly recommend the bio of Wyeth by David Michaelis (who also wrote the recent bio of Charles Schulz, another great read).
posted by OolooKitty at 4:19 PM on December 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Even knowing exactly what I was going to see when I clicked the link, my brain's first thought was still, "Dang, those people look like they just stepped out of a Normal Rockwell painting!"
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:40 PM on December 7, 2009


I didn't realize so much of his work was based on photos. I did know the people were real. My mom worked at this small newspaper and recognized many of the people in the painting.
posted by DaddyNewt at 4:50 PM on December 7, 2009


Rockwell's art is maudlin, mainstream pap, vacuous, soulless and cloyingly romantic. The Reader's Digest of fine art.

That's such an ignorant - tho sadly common - view of the man's work. We discussed this at length in this 2007 thread about a rather overhyped book that claimed to reveal an "underside" of Rockwell's painting but that had been well-explored long before. Aside from the sexual jokes (the famous crotch-level white spooge here, e.g.) there are plenty of very non-mainstream twists to many of his paintings. And then there's always this, from an excellent collection of paintings and essays about the man:

Rockwell also celebrated the Peace Corps and the accomplishments of the United States space program. Yet he declined a commission for a recruiting poster for the Marines at the height of the Vietnam War, asking an interviewer, "I don't think we're helping the Vietnamese people lead better lives, do you?"

Vacuous? Soulless?

Try again.
posted by mediareport at 4:55 PM on December 7, 2009 [12 favorites]


What mediareport said.

One unpublished and uncomfortable (especially from a modern perspective) drawing probably shouldn't be used to make blanket statements about the whole of his work and the artist himself.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 5:10 PM on December 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


One of the reader comments regarding the Boston Globe article in the FPP that mediareport linked to:
"Art is up to the beholder, not the critic. The critics get remunerated even when they are wrong, just like the weather person. Who do we need, the Rockwells or the intellectuals?"
So critics... aren't beholders? Therefore they can be objectively wrong about art? But nobody else can? What? I'm lost. Hold me.
posted by brundlefly at 5:13 PM on December 7, 2009


I take it back. I guess tableaus is acceptable.

Don't take it back yet. It's tableux, now.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:15 PM on December 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Some more Rockwell examples: one two three four

Hergé, the author of The Adventures of Tintin, was also known using references to draw his comics. He had a filing cabinet with magazine and newspaper clippings to source from. We had an FPP about Tintin's Cars (side-by-side comparisons inside… lots!).
posted by yaymukund at 5:20 PM on December 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


He had a filing cabinet with magazine and newspaper clippings to source from.

S'called a morgue file. Lots o' artists and illustrators (and others) have 'em.
posted by Herodios at 5:32 PM on December 7, 2009


Aside from the sexual jokes (the famous crotch-level white spooge here, e.g.)

More e.g.s please.
posted by DU at 6:29 PM on December 7, 2009


This is cool, thanks for posting it. (I love Rockwell's work generally, even if there are some of them I disapprove of.)

One tiny point: In the marriage counselor picture, I take the implicit story to be "he cheated, she found out, this is a one-time thing", not "she habitually beats him up". If it were the longer-standing "she's the boss" thing, Rockwell wouldn't give the guy a black eye, he would give him a downtrodden beseiged look, sagging shoulders etc.

That's not to say it's good or funny or lighthearted even in the one-time-case -- emphatically, it's not.
But I think it's not celebrating ongoing abuse or other longstanding "henpeckedness".
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:33 PM on December 7, 2009


Norman Rockwell inspired a generation of young artists to take up their craft -- including such monumentally important painters as Chuck Close, as he discusses in the (wonderful, first-rate) documentary about his life and work, A Portrait in Progress. My own father, growing up in the 1940s in small-town Wyoming (a redundancy, I know), says he knew by the time he was in first or second grade exactly what he wanted to do with his life: he wanted to become an artist, just like that fellow who made those wonderful illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post that he loved to look at every week.

To snidely dismiss Rockwell as "the Reader's Digest of fine art" is to admit an embarrassing ignorance of the real and measurable impact his work has had on American art for well over half a century.
posted by scody at 7:44 PM on December 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


It is interesting how huge he made the cop's back in the painting compared to the model. I wonder why he felt the need to do that at all. But his positioning of the kid's hands in the painting make him appear much more guilty than as in the photograph.
posted by digsrus at 7:45 PM on December 7, 2009


More e.g.s please.

Well, Rosie the Riveter's penis couldn't be more obvious if it was circumcised and dripping with cum. (OK, maybe that would be a little more obvious.) And Halpern made a big deal about the position of the doll in this one. The splashes of red on the floor are (perhaps too) easy to see as menstrual symbols, but once you notice the doll's ass in the air the picture takes off in a rather different direction. I mentioned a few others in the previous thread; the devil horns on Dad in this hilarious Easter scene is probably my favorite. Lots of folks don't see them at first, but once you do, it's clear the horns are on his head intentionally.

Really, Rockwell's stuff is full of visual puns (he used to do April Fool's paintings that were filled with goofy objects and odd tricks), including sexual ones, which is why I kind of rolled my eyes when Halpern's book came out claiming to reveal a new hidden underside to the man. But Halpern and I agree completely when it comes to moronic, uninformed dismissals like Tube's absurd "Fuck Norman Rockwell."
posted by mediareport at 7:47 PM on December 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


Aside from the sexual jokes (the famous crotch-level white spooge here, e.g.) there are plenty of very non-mainstream twists to many of his paintings.

EXACTLY. Thomas Kinkade is another great example of this. See, for example, his subversive digs at the Puritan status quo via his gratuitously phallic focal points.

Bucolic charm or throbbing cock holocaust? Kinkade paints with subtext as well as he paints with a brush.
posted by dgaicun at 8:06 PM on December 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I love Norman Rockwell, but I'd love to see some examples or articles on why I shouldn't. As an artist myself though, I personally find the guy to be fantastic. I would kill for just a smidgeon of his talent.
posted by Bageena at 8:30 PM on December 7, 2009


As a victim of domestic violence myself, seeing his depiction of it in a "lighthearted" way really sickens me.

It was the times, dude. I remember such lighthearted depictions all over the culture right up until I was a teen. Heck, it was the 1990s before female-on-male domestic violence began to be taken seriously.

It wasn't Rockwell's fault that he was born into a culture where this was acceptable and treated with humor -- so normatively, in fact, that I wonder if he ever heard a single objection to that depiction.
posted by dhartung at 11:36 PM on December 7, 2009


Hands down -- best art exhibit I've ever seen (and I've seen a bunch) was a Rockwell Retrospective.

btw -- that exhibit had had lots of secondary material as well; sketches, incomplete drafts, refs and different versions of some works. I'm pretty sure that the Pollock gag had more than one, which leads me to suspect that the white patch was probably a coincidence.
posted by RavinDave at 12:14 AM on December 8, 2009


I'd love to see some examples or articles on why I shouldn't.

Maybe five or six years ago, I read an essay about whether or not Rockwell was a great artist. I wish I could remember where the essay appeared -- probably in "The New Yorker" or "The New York Times Magazine."

It's a subjective call, of course, but the author of the essay -- an admirer of Rockwell -- came to the conclusion that he was a master craftsman but not a great artist. This matched my feeling, but I had never been able to put into words why I felt that way, until I read the essay.

(I do not believe there's such a thing as objective assessment when it comes to art. So the following is all my opinion -- and the opinion of the author of of that article. But it's boring to keep writing "in my opinion," so I won't bother to do so from here on.)

Great art MUST contain at least some ambiguity. This is true in abstract art, which is all about ambiguity, and figurative art, such as the Mona Lisa, with her famously ambiguous smile. If a work answers all its questions, the viewer can walk away from it without hungering for more -- without being haunted by it. An unambiguous work ties up all lose ends.

(Different viewers can tolerate different amounts of ambiguity. Some people hate abstract art and, say, the ending of "2001." They feel lost. They wish the artist would just explain his point and be done with it. But such viewers don't necessarily hate all ambiguity. They just have a threshold. Such viewers might, say, enjoy "The Shining" or "Turn Of the Screw," both pretty straight-forward ghost stories which toy with the audience about whether the ghosts are real or imaginary.)

That's not to say an unambiguous work has no value. There's a small pleasure in viewing something complete and not having to think about it when it's over. Such pieces require no work -- no collaboration between artist and viewer, since the artist has done all the work himself. The viewer can relax, enjoy and then forget and move on. (In Rockwell's case, the lack of ambiguity allows you to focus more on his technique. It's similar to the thrill of watching a great athlete or circus performer. One is more impressed with the artist than with the story he's telling.)

Note that such works must be well-crafted if they're to be effective. A simple pleasure isn't a pleasure if it's not pleasurable. It's just simple. Rockwell's superb craftsmanship draws you in and gives you sensations, even if those sensations are fleeting. Lesser craftsmen don't draw you in as much or make you feel as deeply. Too bad Rockwell doesn't evoke feelings that linger. He's like sex with an expert call girl; not like making love with one's spouse. But have their charms.

The author of the essay used this painting as an example. In it, a girl is looking at herself in a mirror with a wistful expression on her face. It's impeccably rendered.

The author stated, and I agree, that it would be a great work of art if we had no idea why she was sad. The painting would evoke her sadness but we'd be left to complete the story. The sad girl would haunt us, partly because our brains would forever try to resolve the question as to why she was sad. But Rockwell wasn't comfortable with ambiguity, so he finished the story, putting a fashion magazine in the girl's lap.

This assessment helped me understand something about two other artists* -- artists working in a totally different medium: playwriting. David Mamet and Harold Pinter have similar writing styles. But use minimal language punctuated by suggestive pauses. Both have similar thematic interests -- the brutal ways people manipulate one another with language.

As a director who has studied and directed plays by both writers, it always struck me that while Mamet is a master craftsman, Pinter is that, too, but he's also a great artist. It comes down to the same thing in the end. Mamet doesn't like ambiguity. He has a puzzle-solver's mind, and loose ends probably drive him crazy. On the other hand, Pinter's plays are full of unanswered questions. For some people, they have too many unanswered questions, which is a risk such artists take. Although I love Mamet, in the end I find his plays much less memorable than Pinter's. Pinter's plays haunt me.

Great art haunts.

I've discussed this with many people. Some say, "Yes! That's exactly how I feel! Where can I find that essay?" and I have to disappoint them by admitting that I have no idea where I read it. Others say, "I love the fact that the girl is holding the fashion magazine. I wouldn't like the painting as much if Rockwell hadn't explained why the girl is sad."

I suspect this difference stems from two different sorts of relationships with art. Some people look to art for comfort, as in "comfort food." Comfort food has no ambiguity. We don't eat it because it has interesting, mysterious flavors. We eat it because we've had a hard day at work and we want to ESCAPE ambiguity. We want something that answers all its questions neatly and finally. A place for everything and everything in its place. Such people tend to be mystified as to why others would WANT ambiguity in their lives.

Years ago, I some friends and I were watching a really disturbing play. For one guy, it was too much. He left, and as he did, he said, "You people have a really weird way of relaxing." I wanted to say to him, "But I'm not trying to relax!"

The question is, why not? Why do I seek out ambiguity. Why is this my favorite painting? I can't answer that question, except to say that I like things that linger.

I will say that there's a subtle distinction between ambiguity and confusion. I don't like confusion. I don't like that feeling of, "I have no idea of what's going on." And if an artist is trying to create ambiguity, he always risks accidentally creating confusion. Good ambiguity doesn't leave you confused. It leaves you with questions. It leaves you with a feeling that the work ALMOST resolves itself -- but not quite. It leaves you with the feeling that the answer is right around the corner, which forces your mind to forever try to get around that corner. But of course you can't. It's VERY hard to create ambiguity that doesn't feel forced and isn't confusing. Only great artists can do it.

* If you want to see a clear example of the difference between Mamet and Pinter (and also the similarities), rent "House of Games" and "The Comfort of Strangers." The former, by Mamet, my be disturbing at times, but in the end, I find it comforting -- because it paints the portrait of a world in which all questions DO have answers, even if those answers are sometimes disturbing ones. "The Comfort of Strangers" paints the portrait of a world in which there are no answers. It's a very disturbing world. It's haunting. You may not like it. I find it difficult to watch.
posted by grumblebee at 7:17 AM on December 8, 2009 [7 favorites]


Great art MUST contain at least some ambiguity.

I understand your point, but I disagree. If I hear a beautiful song and the singer is telling me about his pain, is it less artistic that I know it's about his pain?
posted by grubi at 7:23 AM on December 8, 2009


(Remember, I made clear that ALL assessments are subjective. "Great art MUST..." = "For ME to feel a piece of art is great, it MUST...")

Music is an interesting case. You are focusing completely on lyrics. Sometimes songs contain ambiguity in the music but not in the lyrics. I am musically illiterate (but I know what I like), so I can't explain how a composer or performer creates that effect.

For me, the real measure of whether or not a piece of art is great is whether or not it haunts you. And I should define "haunt." Row, Row, Row Your Boat haunts me in that annoying ear-worm way, but I wouldn't call it great art (or even art).

The kind of haunting I'm talking about has two requirements:

1) You can't stop thinking about the work. (Row, Row, Row meets this requirement.)
2) You can't stop thinking about the work in new and changing ways.

I mean "thinking" really loosely hear, because (for me ) the best art is rarely intellectual. "Feeling" is probably a better word -- or experiencing.

If you want to say that art doesn't have to haunt to be great, I can't prove you wrong. I don't think you ARE wrong. I just think you and I define "art" in different ways.
posted by grumblebee at 7:50 AM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think we do have different definitions. Your seems (SEEMS, I say) to be headed more towards that traditional way of thinking: that art is higher as a form. Whereas I feel art is merely forms of entertainment: good art is always in the minority, whether we talk about music, painting, or television. Art is about experience, regardless of the form or the intellectual pursuits of either the artist or beholder. I need not have to have shared the experience that inspired the artist, but if I can feel it -- to any degree -- then the artist has succeeded in touching me.

I don't think ambiguity is a requirement for good art, either. Stark, plain, direct messages can be wonderful if presented well.

(And yes, I know you mentioned it was your opinion, not a declaration of truth -- I was just discussing my opinion as well. :-)
posted by grubi at 8:04 AM on December 8, 2009


I don't see any difference between "art" and "entertainment." I don't even understand the distinction. I do find some experiences more worthwhile than others. Maybe "great art" is a useful way of labeling such experiences. Maybe it isn't, since "art" is such a loaded term.

I don't think ambiguity is a requirement for good art, either. Stark, plain, direct messages can be wonderful if presented well.

Is what I call "haunting" important to your aesthetics? Forget ambiguity for a second. Let's compare two works: work one gives you some sort of fleeting sensation. Let's say it makes you sad. Let's even say it makes you extremely sad. But once it's over you never think about it again. Work two also makes you sad AND it haunts you. Ten years after viewing it, your mind still reaches back to it?

My question is this: do you place a higher value on work two than on work one? I do.

Please note that this has nothing to do with "art" vs. "entertainment." Also note that I am NOT saying that fleeting things have no value. I really enjoy watching "Lost" even though I'm pretty sure I will not give it a thought ten years from now. I just don't value it as highly as I do some other works -- works that continue to resonate with me well after I view them.

If you pardon the vulgarity, I really think sex vs. love is a good analogy. I don't devalue sex. Sex is great. And WHILE it's happening, it can be a profound experience. On the other hand, I don't think back to great sexual experiences of my past. Once it's done, it's done. Love (or even sexual attraction -- as opposed to the act itself) is more haunting. To me, that makes it ultimately more profound. If I have to choose to take either love or sex to a desert island, I'd take love.

IF you do think that haunting or lingering is a value, do you feel that it's possible to achieve that effect without ambiguity?
posted by grumblebee at 8:29 AM on December 8, 2009


I do feel that if it haunts (as you put it), I may find more value in it. I do believe it is possible to achieve that without ambiguity.

Keep in mind, I *like* ambiguity in my art. I just don't see it as a requirement for greatness.
posted by grubi at 8:57 AM on December 8, 2009


You may not be able to do this, which is fine, but I'd be thrilled if you could explain how a work can haunt without being in any way ambiguous. Remember, haunting (the way I defined it) means that the work must continually pay off in with NEW thoughts and feelings.

I agree that there's value in a thought expressed completely, clearly and evocatively. But if there are no loose ends, I don't see how its message can change in your mind.
posted by grumblebee at 9:13 AM on December 8, 2009


Remember, haunting (the way I defined it) means that the work must continually pay off in with NEW thoughts and feelings.

If you define it as such, then YES, ambiguity is a requirement. It's implicit in your definition.

But haunting, to me, means that I repeatedly come back to it because of its merits or the feeling it evokes. That doesn't need ambiguity.
posted by grubi at 9:16 AM on December 8, 2009


For me, the power of a work to evoke a feeling diminishes with repeated viewing -- unless there's ambiguity. Or unless I take a big break between views so I sort of forget how it makes me feel.
posted by grumblebee at 9:45 AM on December 8, 2009


Ah, I see. For me, I always try to put myself in a frame of mind that I was in when I first viewed the work so that the original feeling returns. Maybe not as intense, but the same nonetheless.

Works best with film, IMO.
posted by grubi at 10:53 AM on December 8, 2009


If nothing else can't we all at least agree that Thomas Kinkade sucks?
posted by MikeMc at 12:25 PM on December 8, 2009


Thanks, grubi. I am fascinated by the different ways people interact with art. I don't think this has been studied much, which is sad because it's pretty important if you want to understand how art impacts culture. The conventional assumption is that we all pretty much interact with art in the same ways. I don't believe that's true.

I am much more passive than you. It would never occur to me to try to put myself in a frame of mind before viewing art. (I'm not sure I would even know how to do that.) Rather, I look to art to push me into various frames of mind.
posted by grumblebee at 12:29 PM on December 8, 2009


I started doing the frame of mind thing years ago when I was rewatching Fight Club: I loved the moment of realization just as the movie was telling me the Big Secret About the Film... so I thought, What was I thinking when I first watched this?

I don't *always* do this, but often it helps. It's especially good when watching old classic films: try to put yourself in a frame of mind of the average moviegoer in that era... otherwise simple things like special effects or twist endings will seem trite.
posted by grubi at 2:37 PM on December 8, 2009


MikeMc: I believe we can.
posted by grubi at 2:38 PM on December 8, 2009


But Rockwell wasn't comfortable with ambiguity, so he finished the story, putting a fashion magazine in the girl's lap.

That first part's a real stretch, grumblebee. That Rockwell was primarily a storyteller, delivering paintings to a mass audience on a weekly basis, doesn't mean he "wasn't comfortable with ambiguity." In fact, the folks who seem most uncomfortable with ambiguity in this conversation are the ones who assign the most superficial meanings they can to Rockwell's work and insist that's all the paintings can be about.

The Connoisseur in front of the abstract painting is a classic example. There's nothing in the painting that presents him as befuddled instead of entranced, yet most folks immediately leap to the first conclusion. In fact, in the book I linked above, an essay by Wanda Corn makes a marvelous case that Rockwell's presentation of the Connoisseur is a largely sympathetic portrait of the slow, meditative - even passive - absorption painters like Pollack were telling interviewers they wanted from their audience. The Connoisseur is nose-deep in the painting to better absorb it, he's standing still and has obviously been so for a while...Where exactly is the evidence that Rockwell is laughing at

Despite the clear scorn Abstract Expressionists had for Rockwell, what Rockwell has done in return (at least here) is much more ambiguous than folks like grumblebee give him credit for. Rockwell is not only enjoying the antagonistic relationship between the two characters - the push and pull of the gigantic chaotic mass vs. the proper, symmetric gentleman - but also took time to *really* paint a damn fine abstract painting, and then crystallized a complex portrait of exactly the kind of gaze Pollack et al were demanding while 1) playing off his usual audience's expectations about abstract art and 2) making an ejaculatory inside joke about the nature of Expressionist painting.

And that's not an "ambiguous" work?

Puh-lease.
posted by mediareport at 4:02 PM on December 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Er..."Where exactly is the evidence that Rockwell is laughing at him?"
posted by mediareport at 4:04 PM on December 8, 2009


Sorry for these...Just want to make clear I know grumblebee didn't say Rockwell was laughing at the Connoisseur; it's a general example. I'm just pointing out that there's no way on earth someone "uncomfortable with ambiguity" could have painted that painting.
posted by mediareport at 4:05 PM on December 8, 2009


I agree with most of what you say about that painting, mediareport. It's my favorite Rockwell (which shouldn't surprise you, given my taste), but from what I've seen, it's pretty different from most of his work. I also agree that "Rockwell is afraid of ambiguity" is a stretch. It's armchair psychology. What I do feel confident saying is this: via MY definition of ambiguity, that trait is lacking in most of Rockwell's work. The reasons for that I can't say, because I can't get inside Rockwell's head. It does strike me as LIKELY that he wasn't all that interested in ambiguity.

an essay by Wanda Corn makes a marvelous case that Rockwell's presentation of the Connoisseur is a largely sympathetic portrait of the slow, meditative - even passive - absorption painters like Pollack were telling interviewers they wanted from their audience.

This, to me, is the sort of absurd statement that academics love to make. The painting is of a man standing in front of a painting. Corn may, herself, see it as symbolic of this or that -- meaning that the painting may spark associations in HER brain.

But the painting itself can not BE symbolic of something Pollack said, because Pollack's words are not in the painting.

IF someone happens to know and care about what Pollack said, and IF that same person looked at the painting while thinking about those words, he MIGHT make a similar association.

IF Rockwell intended that to be the message of the painting, and IF a particular viewer CARES about Rockwell's intent, he MIGHT make a similar association.

IF either of these viewers indeed did make that association it MIGHT be, for them, a useful, interesting or entertaining way of thinking about the painting for them.
posted by grumblebee at 4:36 PM on December 8, 2009


I don't *always* do this, but often it helps. It's especially good when watching old classic films: try to put yourself in a frame of mind of the average moviegoer in that era... otherwise simple things like special effects or twist endings will seem trite.

I'm lucky enough to not have to do that, because my father was a film historian. I grew up watching thousands of old movies, for years and years of my childhood. They are, in some way, more real to me than contemporary movies.

But I'm curious about what you mean when you "try to put yourself in a frame of mind of the average moviegoer in that era." I'm wondering how intellectual this process is -- and how intellectual your movie-watching experience is in general.

I'm asking because I can only imagine two forms of doing this which would work for me:

1) Immersing myself in the history of that era (as I did, without trying, with classics) until it doesn't feel alien at all. I'm assuming that, in general, you don't mean this, as it takes tons of work. I can do it with American and British movies from the '20s through the '50s, but if you asked me to do it with, say, Japanese films, I couldn't without weeks of work.

2) Learn a little about the history and "put yourself in the frame of mind" intellectually, even if you can't emotionally. In other words, I can't get into the frame of mind of someone who idolized Hitler, but I can sort of talk to myself about it while watching "Triumph of the Will." I can say, "Well, if I DID love Hitler, then this moment would be really affecting to me..."

Is this what you mean? It would, perhaps, make movie watching an interesting experience in an internal DVD-commentary sort of way.

Except I have no interested in relating to art intellectually. I only care about how a movie makes me FEEL. If I lack a frame of reference that is KEY for making me feel a certain way, then I don't see how I can easily acquire it. I can't make myself love Hitler (that goodness!).
posted by grumblebee at 4:46 PM on December 8, 2009


But Rockwell wasn't comfortable with ambiguity, so he finished the story, putting a fashion magazine in the girl's lap.

IF either of these viewers indeed did make that association it MIGHT be, for them, a useful, interesting or entertaining way of thinking about the painting for them.


Forgive me, I'm jumping in late here. It seems to me, grumblebee, that on one hand you are arguing that Rockwell was far too explicit in his work - telling the story rather than setting up the story for interpretation. But then, when mediareport retorted by saying that Rockwell was actually quite ambiguous, allowing for many interpretations, you say that that's just something academics love to say. I know you are operating under your own definition of ambiguity, but it seems like a very fluid definition to me.

Boy, I wish I had known about that white splooge bit in the Connoisseur during my 8th grade Rockwell presentation.
posted by Think_Long at 6:26 PM on December 8, 2009


I don't get how I'm being inconsistent, Think_Long. I've made two claims:

1) Rockwell was too explicit*.

2) Academics are being silly when they claim that a work encodes some sort of complex meaning that isn't either obvious from examining the work itself or obvious when examining the work within a context shared by most people (if there is such a thing).

I barely see a relationship between the two statements.

To me, an ambiguous work CAN'T be resolved into having an explicit meaning. So it's foolish for an academic to act as if its can. Such work can have a subjective meaning, of course, but that's individual and personal. Yet it sounds like the academic quoted was "making a case" about the work's meaning at large. I specifically think it's silly to make such claim about THAT painting, which, as I've said, is a rare ambiguous work within Rockwell's otherwise explicit canon.

*I'd like to be clear that I love Rockwell's work and always have. (I am the OP of this thread!) I just think there are things he could have done to make his work more multi-leveled and haunting. And to me, those changes would have made his work better.
posted by grumblebee at 6:45 PM on December 8, 2009


But then, when mediareport retorted by saying that Rockwell was actually quite ambiguous, allowing for many interpretations, you say that that's just something academics love to say.

OHHHHH! Now I see how I was confusing. Sorry. I didn't mean that academics were claiming that works allowed for many interpretations and that I found THAT silly. If that's what academics are claiming, then I agree with them.

I meant that the specific statement made by that one academic, in which she "made a case for" a particular interpretation was silly. It's like me making a case that I DID dream about a horse last night.

That game is constantly played out in academia -- that "making a case for" game -- and it's something I find absurd. (That's a non-related issue to whether or not Rockwell is ambiguous or whether or not good art must contain ambiguity, and it was confusing of me to make both points in one post.)

I find it absurd BECAUSE I believe that no interpretation has primacy over any other. I don't see how it could have, since interpretation is personal. Even if you "proved" to me that your interpretation was better than mine (whatever that would mean), I'm not sure what that would achieve. Okay, it's better. Now pardon me while I continue to have my sub-par interpretation and enjoy it.
posted by grumblebee at 6:52 PM on December 8, 2009


I thought this was the internet, of course my interpretation is better than everyone else's. Don't intrude on my ego.
posted by Think_Long at 7:01 PM on December 8, 2009


This, to me, is the sort of absurd statement that academics love to make.

Huh. To me, it's exactly the sort of thing anyone who spends any time thinking about the process of creating art might say about a complex work. Different strokes. The point isn't that it's symbolic of something that Pollock said; the point is that there's an easily sustainable interpretation that Rockwell is in a complex way honoring the kind of moment Pollock and his pals were trying to get viewers to have. That the painting carries more than enough ambiguity to allow for multiple interpretations like that is more than enough to puncture your initial bizarre statement that "Rockwell wasn't comfortable with ambiguity."

It does strike me as LIKELY that he wasn't all that interested in ambiguity.

And if you'd said that instead of the absurd overreach I would have disagreed in my head and moved on.

Btw, since the fashion magazine "finishes the story" by abruptly closing off all other interpretations for you in that girl/mirror painting (and what a bizarre way to think about painting *that* is), what's your take on the doll with its ass in the air?
posted by mediareport at 8:57 PM on December 8, 2009


My take on the doll is that girls often have dolls. This girl seems to be uninterested in her doll. She seems to be more interested in her reflection. (The doll is mildly interesting to me, but it's surely not the main subject of the painting -- at least not to me.)

Please tell me if I'm misunderstanding you, but it sounds like you're asking me something like "Why do you think the artist painted a doll in that position?" or "What do you think the symbolic meaning of the doll is?"

I can't answer either of those questions, because they have no baring on how I relate to art. I do not believe my way of relating to art is better or worse than anyone else's (in fact, I reject the notion that there are better and worse ways of relating to art), but naturally I can only react in the way I react.

I do not care why Rockwell put the doll in that position. I'd rather not think about Rockwell while I look at the painting. (I enjoy thinking about him during discussions like this, but not while I'm experiencing the painting.) While I'm looking at the painting, I'd rather just experience the painting itself. My goal is to allow the painting to spark feelings and, to a much lesser degree, thoughts.

Here's what moves me in paintings: color and composition in all paintings. In figurative paintings, I am also moved by plot and character (if there's a human or animal) -- or by my reaction to the object or environment (if it's a still-life or landscape).

If you include symbolic meaning and artist intent, which you're free to do, even though I don't, then of course there's ambiguity. All works are SYMBOLICALLY ambiguous. (How could they be symbolically unambiguous?) Symbolism is personal and intent is unknowable.

My point is that, for me, had Rockwell chosen to omit the fashion magazine, there would have been a beautiful sort of ambiguity on the plot level. I can't imagine why Rockwell would have preferred answering that specific question to leaving it unanswered. But that's because I'm me.

(By the way, though I again must assert that there are no better or worse ways to experience art, I believe my way is the commonest way. In academia, people are interested in symbolism and intent. But outside of the intelligentsia, most people -- in my experience -- react to paintings the way I do: they say, "Wow those colors are beautiful!" or "I wonder why the girl is sad.")

Had he left it unanswered, I would have spent hours (days? years?) wondering what made the girl so sad. Sometimes, I probably would have answered the question via my imagination. No doubt my answer would have changed as I looked at the picture over the years. To me, THAT sort of ambiguity is gorgeous, and that's the sort that Rockwell seems uninterested in, even if he is interested in some sort of symbolic ambiguity or whatever.

Here's a question: why did Rockwell choose to show us why the girl is sad rather than to leave it ambiguous? Again, I can't get inside his head, but my guess is that he was less interested in giving the viewer a feeling -- a sensation of mysterious sadness -- than he was in making a social critique.

A social critique is more intellectual than emotional/sensual. As someone who relates to art on an non-intellectual level, I wish he'd taken the other route. Okay, not everyone has to please me. I know that. And I don't care about the many artists who go for the intellect. Most of them are conceptual artists. There's not much that's emotional about their work to begin with. Rockwell is different. His paintings seem designed to ALMOST tickle an emotional bone in me -- and then to pull back at the last minute.

I am trying to imagine what it would be like to have that painting hanging on my wall for 20 years. I like it, so I'm sure I would enjoy it for a while. But then I would keep staring at it, and my brain -- which hates to be bored -- would try to resolve it into new things. I think, with that painting, I wouldn't be able to do it after a while. Too many of the questions have been answered. Yes, I might find other things to focus on -- the technique or the details around the edges. But where can I go with the main subject?

Contrast that with the di Chirico painting I linked to above. (This one.) It can never resolve itself, so I can look at it forever. It will always be within reach but also out of my grasp. I don't understand the sort of mindset that would rather paint what's making that shadow than leave it to the imagination.
posted by grumblebee at 10:13 PM on December 8, 2009


That the painting carries more than enough ambiguity to allow for multiple interpretations like that is more than enough to puncture your initial bizarre statement that "Rockwell wasn't comfortable with ambiguity."

I am a theatre director who is not comfortable directing comedy. But I've directed a few and I've done a good job. (Based on audience and critical reaction.) I like to push my boundaries and I can often do so successfully if I work VERY hard.

If you said, "Grumblebee is not comfortable with comedy," you'd be right. But someone might counter you by saying, "What are you talking about? I saw his funny production of 'Much Ado About Nothing!' I don't think someone who isn't comfortable with comedy could direct a play like that."

However, I think if you looked at the body of my work, you'd notice a pattern -- many serious plays than comedies. You'd never know for sure, but it wouldn't be unreasonable to suspect that I'm not comfortable directing comedies (or I'm not interested in them or some similar interpretation).

So I don't think that one (amazing) painting punctures my statement. To puncture it, you have to show how, on a more global level, Rockwell likes ambiguity.

I am quite surprised that you feel that he is into ambiguity! If I had a friend who said, "I wish I could find an artist who had a sort of cut-and-dry personality," I would instantly recommend Rockwell and be pretty sure my friend would be pleased. Sure, many of his works are subversive and have hidden elements, but that's not ambiguity. And, again, it's not fair to say that his work is symbolically ambiguous. There's no such thing as a concrete symbol.
posted by grumblebee at 10:23 PM on December 8, 2009


Is this what you mean? It would, perhaps, make movie watching an interesting experience in an internal DVD-commentary sort of way.

Basically. It's like turning on a part of my brain that puts me there -- with my same issues and viewpoints, there's no denying that -- but by being there in that era (so to speak), the filmmaking techniques themselves don't feel dated. I can spend more time experiencing the film than picking apart bad makeup or effects because I was raised in a modern filmmaking era.

Except I have no interested in relating to art intellectually. I only care about how a movie makes me FEEL.

I'm not trying to relate to the film intellectually -- in fact, I only ever look at a film intellectually AFTER I've had the experience.
posted by grubi at 5:24 AM on December 9, 2009


What's the ambiguity in Myron's Discus Thrower?

Or doesn't that qualify as "art" either?
posted by RavinDave at 11:37 PM on December 20, 2009


I think there's tons of ambiguity in the Discus Thrower sculpture. Lack of ambiguity comes when a work both poses a question and answers it.

I don't mean tangential questions. ALL works pose those. What's in the next room? What happened the day before? What's in the girl's pocket? Etc.

I mean that the work poses some sort of central question and then answers that question.

All this is open to personal interpretation, of course, but to me, the central question of the Rockwell painting of the girl is "Why is she sad?" And, to me, the answer is in the painting. Another viewer might say, "I don't think that's the painting's question" or "I don't think the painting has a question." Fair enough. They are right and I am right. I am right about how the painting affects ME.

Of course there are all sorts of other questions that one might associate with the painting: what's going to happen to the girl when she grows up? What's the deal with the doll? Etc. But for me, none of those are the central question of the painting's main "plot." I can't look at the painting without thinking, "Why is she sad? Oh, yeah. I see. Oh well... it's beautifully drawn."

But the discuss thrower is filled with mystery. I can't even think of a question it brings up. It's an object, and since it doesn't have a plot, my mind is free to create one. Or not. Non-narrative still lifes and portraits are almost always ambiguous.

Once you add a plot, it's harder to create ambiguity. But it's not impossible. A famously ambiguous movie is "2001." It's way too ambiguous for many people's tastes, and that's fine. It's Ambiguity with a capital A. There are tons of movies are are more subtly ambiguous. My favorite example is Chaplin's "City Lights," but since many here haven't seen that, I'll give the example of "Vertigo." Think about the end moment. That's an example of plot that allows for ambiguity. (I'm not saying that it's ambiguous what happens. It's clear what happens. I'm saying that it's emotionally ambiguous. Hitchcock doesn't include a cathartic scene at the end. So the movie remains with you like an open wound.)

I guess one could look at it and wonder, "Does he make a successful throw?" Even that simple question isn't answered by the work. I don't think of it that way, but if you insist on giving the work a plot, I'd argue that it's a story without an implicit ending.

You brought up the thrower as if to show me that a good work needn't contain ambiguity, which makes be think that when I wrote of ambiguity, you thought I meant some big, unexplained mystery. Ambiguity CAN mean that. But most of the time, it doesn't. Famously, many people of think of the Mona Lisa as being ambiguous, just based on her strange little smile. And I agree.
posted by grumblebee at 6:16 PM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Very nice explanation; lucid, consistent and cleanly articulated. But we still probably won't see eye to eye on this. I tend to stand with the ancient Greeks, who didn't even have a word for "art" in the sense most people use it. The closest they came was "techne" -- "technique".
posted by RavinDave at 12:16 AM on December 25, 2009


I'm not a fan of the word art, either. It's one of those words that only "makes sense" to me if I don't think about it.

In the end, I'm saying something very simple -- so simple that it's almost tautological. I'm saying that works bother me for a longer time if they contain unanswered questions than if they don't. Naturally, my brain has to work harder to answer unanswered questions than to answer answered ones.

I'm making a second claim: works that bother me in this way are better (more meaningful, more affecting, more haunting) than works that don't. As an aesthetic claim, it is definitely open to argument. (It's also a silly claim if I'm making it in a universal sense. All I can ultimately say is that such works are better to me. If they're not better to you than they're not better to you.)

And, of course, we could also argue about whether or not a particular work fits into my unanswered-question category.

Works that answer their questions have value. Sometimes one doesn't want mental or emotional bother. Works that don't exercise the mind in this way can be very relaxing. The real world can seem dazzlingly random. It's nice to spend some time in simpler worlds, especially after a hard day in the office.

Most such works announce the fact that they're not going to haunt you from the start, usually by taking the form of melodrama or another cut-and-dry form, such as satire or social commentary. When we recognize that something is a melodrama, we relax. We may feel that fun roller-coaster kind of tension as we wonder how the hero will get out of his current dilemma. But we know that he WILL get out of it somehow. So it's a safe sort of tension. It's more fun than haunting.

I think we have a huge need for such works. To me, they are comfort food. They don't feed me for long, but while I'm eating them, I feel like I'm in a secure universe.

Murder mysteries have an interesting place on the continuum. As I read them, they seem -- emotionally -- like they might leave me hanging. But I know they really won't. (If they did, I'd be pissed.) In the end, they tend to tie everything up neatly. Which is what they promise to do from the start.

I'm a HUGE mystery fan, and my need for new mysteries is bottomless. I rarely want to re-read an old one, because on second reading I can't fool myself that maybe the mystery will always remain a mystery -- and then have the satisfying feeling that it won't. (Some mysteries mix this solved/puzzle form with psychological ambiguity, which can be an interesting hybrid.) I could argue that it's not a particular mystery that's the work -- it's the genre.

On the other hand, I don't find myself wishing that there were more "King Lear"s. I've re-read that play countless times, because it never answers all its questions. I always feel like maybe if I read it just one more time, it WILL answer them.
posted by grumblebee at 9:14 AM on December 25, 2009


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