Untitled (pretentious art snobbery)

The (un)title of Curt’s latest entry reminded me of a thought that crossed my mind as I was wandering around the artistic wasteland that is the fourth floor of the obsessively weird Centre Pompidou last week: untitled works of art almost universally suck. Now, I’m sure some of you e.e. cummings and Jackson Pollock fans will be outraged by this assertion (though it’s telling that Pollock’s most famous painting is known colloquially as Lavender Mist, not Number 1, 1950), but even granting that there are probably exceptions, I think an honest reflection on the various untitled works of art one has experienced must invariably lead to the conclusion that most of them are garbage.1

Why? Well, it’s not necessarily clear why this should be the case. After all, if Don Quijote or Das Wohltemperierte Klavier or La Gioconda had gone untitled, they would still be recognized as great works of art; after all, what we find beautiful about those works are their content, not their names (especially in the case of Don Quijote, which could be loosely, but not entirely inaccurately, translated as Sir Cheesy). That having been said, it seems to me that, given that a title usually reflects the sensibilities of both the author and the work, there may be some common themes to untitled works of art that might explain why they tend to suck.

For one thing, many such works are so abstract as to admit no titular description (both Pollock and certain minimalist works especially come to mind). Still, modernist naïf that I am, it seems to me that the better abstract works evoke something outside themselves instead of being hermetically sealed, self-contained objects. And a title usually gives some insight into whatever it was the author was trying to evoke (e.g. Alexander Calder), even if one ultimately rejects that interpretation. Perhaps more importantly, the sort of work that is so hermetic as to be totally resistant to titling probably isn’t going to strike that evocative chord.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t something to Rothko’s justification that “Silence is so accurate” when explaining why he used generic or non-existent titles for his later works (he feared, or at least claimed to, that more descriptive titles would paralyze the viewer’s imagination).2 This is, of course, a common refrain among modern artists, but in most cases it’s a cop-out from lesser artists who want to conceal the fact that they really just don’t have anything to say.

Which brings me to my second point, which is that, in my limited experience as a writer, coming up with a good title is often significantly harder (at least, relative to the semantic/syntactic “size” of title vs. content) than producing, e.g., a well-written essay (not that either is particularly good, but the title/content of this particular post illustrate this point quite admirably, I think).3 As hinted above, I suspect a goodly number of artists are simply taking the easy way out when leaving their works untitled; and let’s face it: the sort of artist who’s willing to take the easy way out on the most recognizable (rightly or wrongly) aspect of his work probably isn’t going to produce a lot of really earth-shattering art. In other words, while there may be excellent reasons for art to be untitled, those reasons are invoked considerably more often than is really justified.

On what may or may not be an unrelated note (the perceived independence of the following observation from the above probably depends on whether your opinion of the Pompidou’s fourth floor agrees with mine or not), I feel, as someone who’s been in at least five internationally renowned art museums in the last week (the Louvre, the Pompidou, the Orsay, the Marmottan and the Musée National Picasso), qualified to pass the following judgment on art museums: they suck (and yes, that’s three uses of the word “suck” in this post, which might give one the false impression that I had a really bad time in France; I didn’t, of course, it’s just that cynical complaining is much more up my rhetorical alley than enthusiastic paeans).4 Don’t get me wrong, I love art museums, but I’m convinced that, by their very nature, they’re antithetical to their purported purpose. What do I mean by that? Well, it’s actually quite simple: after four hours in your third art museum of the last two days, it’s virtually impossible to appreciate any work of art that you haven’t already seen and dissected on slides or prints (and even in the case of those works you have seen in, say, an art history class, it’s still pretty tough to see the painting itself as opposed to your professor’s description of it). When your feet hurt, your back aches, and you’ve already seen 300 works of art that could legitimately be called masterpieces, it’s very difficult to have any reaction to yet another painting other than “Oh, that’s nice.” The Louvre, of course, is the most egregious example of this, given the size and quality of its collection, but any sufficiently large and well-stocked museum (the Prado, the National Gallery, etc.) is capable of evoking this reaction all by itself, and the smaller museums devoted to a single artist (the Marmottan, the Sorolla museum in Madrid, etc.) or a single movement (the D’Orsay, the Pompidou, the Reina Sofia) are arguably worse, given the relative homogeneity of their collections.

In this context, one really begins to appreciate the presentation of El entierro del Conde de Orgaz in the church of Santo Tomé in Toledo. El Greco’s masterpiece has a room entirely to itself in a church that offers no other great artistic works aside from itself (in particular, its mudéjar tower); this, along with the fact that one has to pay an entrance fee just to see the painting, really forces you to linger over El entierro, to devote some time to looking at it and thinking about it (of course, given that the annex in which it’s housed is usually quite crowded with Japanese tourists, it helps that the painting is pretty large and visible even from a good distance away). Whereas if you wanted to do the same with each significant painting in the Louvre, you’d be there for months (a viable option for those who live in Paris, perhaps, but not for those of us ingrates who like having bacon for breakfast).

1. Of course, most works of art, untitled or not, are garbage, but here I’m restricting my attention to those works of art deemed worthy of appearing in prestigious art museums.
2. I have a print of Rothko’s Orange and Yellow hanging in my living room, so of course I’m going to be somewhat sympathetic to his perspective.
3. Requisite “meta” moment.
4. Since this sentence is already irrevocably tangled by parentheses, I might as well add the further parenthetical observation (except I hate nested parentheses, so it goes in a footnote instead) that my overuse of the word “suck” might also be seen as some sort of sexually-frustrated cry for help, but, at this point, that practically goes without saying.

3 Responses to “Untitled (pretentious art snobbery)”

  1. Curt Says:

    I’d go with the thesis that lack of a title probably indicates a similar level of engagement on the part of the artist as it is likely to evoke in the viewer, i.e. very little or a completely randomn out-on-a-limb reaction, which is probably what the artist was hoping for with his title-deficient lack of guidance, like a soldier hurling a grenade and not really caring where it lands. By the way, I concur with your observation that cathedrals are far better showpieces for art than museums, not just because there are less showpiece works of art but also the cathedral is generally their original setting, and a much more majestic one at that. A particularly good example is Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, where in two famous Caravaggio’s the painted light which pierces the darkness in particularly Caravaggian fashion in fact follows the exact trajectory by which the actual light from the cathedral windows strikes the paintings. Italy has a much higher ratio of cathedral-to-museum art than any other place I’ve been, which is yet another reason why it is the world’s greatest exhibition of art–except for the numerous empty spots on cathedral walls throughout the country, largely explained by the acquisition dates of most of the Italian paintings in the Louvre: 1805, 1810, 1812, etc.

  2. Curt Says:

    Plus, as you suggest, going to any museum of repute is like walking into a library and ingesting everything inside in a single afternoon. One downside to European-style cultural consolidation.

  3. Curt Says:

    It should be said, however, in fairness that what we know as La Divina Commedia was, well, untitled by Dante, and only gained its current title at the hands of over-zealous Counter-Reformationists in the 16th century. On a completely unrelated tangent, I must say that I generally prefer it when books title their chapters, for the same reasons, and it really bugs me when (contemporary) authors label the sections of a novel “Volume” or “Book” as if the thing had actually been serialized or published in installments. Perhaps they forget that while it is very proper to admire Dickens, it is not desirable to copy every banal element of the 19th century publishing world.

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