Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Art of Words

Not much time left for the exhibition "Painted with Words" at the Pierpont Morgan library, celebrating Vincent's letters to friend and fellow artist Emile Bernard (closes Jan. 6th). For fun, I took a minute during my office hour today to see if there was a good airfare to do one of my crazy up-and-back-in-one-day trips, but alas, no fare cheap enough to suit me. Quel dommage!

I've got the catalogue though, and I love it, especially the pages with facsimiles of the letters. What better way to get to know van Gogh than to see his scrawling text: which words he makes just a little bigger to stress their importance, where he gets excited and his handwriting a little bit worse, where he's more patient and the writing is neater. And his French grammar? Not perfect, but that's part of him too. How much do we miss these days, communicating with everyone via email and generic fonts designed by somebody else? Sure, we have the words, but do we have the essence? Who's going to put up an exhibition a hundred years from now with printouts of so-and-so's emails?

I think a lot about words, especially this time of the semester when I've got a pile of students' words to read. I can tell who in the stack loves words and really thinks about they're writing, and who's just trying to get the job done. Words are something to savor; one of my great pleasures is when I'm writing (academically or creatively), fussing over a certain sentence, and boom! There's the word I want, just like magic. It IS magic, and in some ways, a dying art. We're writing more than ever -- but are we really writing? (And don't get me started on the dying art of good spelling...)

"There's the art of lines and colors, but there's the art of words that will last just the same." -VvG to Bernard (letter 4, April 1888)

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