Sunday, December 6, 2009

Essence of Cow

Two Museum Visits—and an Art Gallery Not Visited


Stepping off the elevator at the Museum of Modern Art several years ago, I proceeded into a room of paintings that I was sure that I had visited many times before. However, this time as I turned to the wall on my right, I was stopped in my tracks by a painting that I had no recollection of seeing previously: “The Cow with the Subtile Nose” by Jean Dubuffet (viewable at I gazed at the work in wonderment for some time. Surely, I thought, this is Essence of Cow.


Some years later, wandering the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I decided to drop in at the International Center of Photography, then located on museum row on upper Fifth Avenue. The ICP was hosting a group exhibition, each of the participating photographers being allotted wall space for both his prints and a statement of purpose. As I walked around the gallery I became aware of one salient fact—the photographers whose pictures held my attention had all declined to make a statement about their work. Their photographs worked as photographs because their images contained all the information needed. In contrast, there was one photographer who had an IDEA: he was in Hawaii and decided to go out into the tropical forest in the middle of the night and snap pictures at one location facing in different directions. The result was a set of images that looked like nothing at all, and had no compositional sense or internal tension.


The art gallery not visited was in Suffolk, England.

As reported by the Daily Telegraph in 2001 (link:, for her end-of-the-year project an art student named Katherine Hymers was to spend four days lying asleep on a single bed set in the middle of the gallery amid the work of her fellow students. Her “work,” she said, was “a symbol of her struggle as an artist, representing the way that her art has become her life.”
Of course, just by looking at someone snoozing, one would instantaneously grasp that meaning, right? Or would one have to poke Ms Hymers in the ribs and ask, “What the hell are you up to?”


Francis Bacon (the 20th Century painter, not Shakespeare’s contemporary of the same name) once said, “If you can talk about it, why paint it?” Words are no substitute for (and certainly not an improvement on) the direct experience of art. Critic Jonathan Jones recently stated in the Guardian, “Art doesn't have to be about anything to be good. In fact, the easier it is to say what a work is about, the less interesting that work becomes.” I am reminded of the second- and third-rate books in the syllabi of some of my former colleagues; they were there because they were easy to teach in a connect-the-dots way. One could talk about Themes and Ideas all day. Never mind that the works were in themselves “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,” to quote Hamlet.

Henri Cartier-Bresson said great photography depicted "the decisive moment,” which he described as “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression." Perhaps all great art, each in a way appropriate to its particular genre, strives to accomplish the same result.

To view some paintings by Francis Bacon:
To view some photographs by Cartier-Bresson:

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

“Which of you shall we say doth love us most?”

“Which of you shall we say doth love us most?”

With these words King Lear, determined to shed himself of the cares of state and to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, settles back to bask in the fulsomeness of praise. His two eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, do not disappoint him. “Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter,” Goneril begins.

“Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e'er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable;
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.”

Regan, an excellent poker player, sees her sister:

“Sir, I am made
Of the self-same metal that my sister is,
And prize me at her worth. In my true heart
I find she names my very deed of love.”

And then raises her:

“Only she comes too short: that I profess
Myself an enemy to all other joys,
Which the most precious square of sense possesses;
And find I am alone felicitate
In your dear highness' love.”

These hyperbolic phrases come from the mouths of two daughters who will prove to be among the cruelest of Shakespeare’s characters. After Lear has turned over all his kingdom to them, they will bar the castle door against him, forcing their father to spend the night battling a raging storm.*

Lear then turns to his youngest daughter, Cordelia, and asks her: “[W]hat can you say to draw/A third [part of the kingdom] more opulent than your sisters? Speak.”

Cordelia’s answer is “Nothing.”


We will come back to King Lear, but let’s move on to Hamlet for a little bit.

In Act V, Hamlet has returned to Denmark, unbeknownst to all but his faithful friend Horatio. In the graveyard they spy an approaching funeral party and hide themselves. It is the interment of Ophelia, but before the burial can be completed, Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, leaps into the open grave, embraces his sister’s coffin and exclaims:

“Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead,
Till of this flat a mountain you have made,
To o'ertop old Pelion, or the skyish head
Of blue Olympus.”

Hamlet reveals himself, then leaps into the grave and grapples with Laertes, until they are pulled apart. But what exactly is it that impels the Prince to come out of hiding and make his return known to all the court?


“What is he whose grief
Bears such an emphasis? whose phrase of sorrow
Conjures the wandering stars, and makes them stand
Like wonder-wounded hearers? . . .
Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I:
And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart! Nay, an thou'It mouth,
I'll rant as well as thou.”

The important words, I think, are the verbs “prate,” mouth,” and “rant.” Hamlet, who has proclaimed, “I loved Ophelia,” is offended by the hyperbolic prating, mouthing, and ranting of Laertes. And so he mocks Laertes: “forty thousand brothers/Could not with all their quantity of love,/Make up my sum.”

The hyperbolic, then, is always suspect: it can be the resort of insincere and hypocritical persons to cover up their real feelings; or if expressed by one with true feelings, it will undermine those very feelings. As Hamlet well knows, true feelings must be matched by proportionate words and deeds.


Back to Cordelia, who will remain faithful to her father until her death.

After refusing to match her sisters’ hyperbole, Cordelia is finally impelled to enlarge upon her answer of “Nothing”:

“Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less. . . .
Good my lord.
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.”

The true daughter’s proportionate response reminds us of the Commandment:



*Cordelia later remarks about her sisters’ cruelty:

“Mine enemy's dog,/Though he had bit me, should have stood that night/Against my fire.”

(Adaptation of a speech not given)