(I forgot to mention this in the clip above, but here is the tweet that originally set me thinking about this.)


I’ve been reading about Vincent van Gogh lately.  The guy was kind of crazy, as you may have heard, and also pretty unbearable.  He was always mooching off of his brother to support himself.  He would have been almost impossible to put up with, I think.

I’ve also been surprised by how many of his paintings were kind of lousy.  One of his famous early paintings was The Potato Eaters, which was not that well-received:

Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
To be honest I kind of like that one, but it was not popular in its time, and I can see why.  The ones I really cannot stand are his paintings of farmers at work in sunny fields and colorful little hamlets.  They are painted in a cartoonish, weird style, and oftentimes the lighting is just too much for me. This one, The Olive Trees, gives you some idea:

Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I like his night paintings much better.  This one, Starry Night Over the Rhone, I prefer even to his more famous Starry Night:

Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I wonder if painting, maybe more so than other artistic endeavors, just requires that you keep at it.  I don’t mean just in terms of practicing to learn how to paint, but even once you are a technically skilled painter, you have to just keeping painting stuff until you happen to get something good.  There are one-hit wonder novelists and musicians, but maybe painting is more of a “quantity leads to quality”  kind of thing.

I get uneasy when I read academic literary analysis that focuses heavily on what elements of a story are supposed to symbolize.  Symbolism is definitely a device that artists use, and to some extent all art is trying to say something about “life, the universe, and everything” by using its own elements as representative of some larger idea.

So, we know symbolism is used.  What we don’t always know is what the author was symbolizing or why, and unless they explicitly say so somewhere, the only way to figure it out is through educated guesswork.  And sometimes, we don’t even know if s/he was trying to symbolize anything.

This being so, it’s awfully easy to make up almost any symbolism you like and call it an analysis.  Let me give you an example of what I mean, with a faux-analysis I just made up of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Grand Duke:

The Grand Duke is an allegory about the failure of democracy.  It shows the rightful ruler of the state of Pfennig-Halbpfennig deposed by the rabble (actors–commonly considered a “low” occupation then.) The actors, on taking over the government promptly seek to “revive the classic memories of Athens at its best”. The ancient Greek theme is chosen to represent Democracy because it was in ancient Greece that Democracy was created.

The ultimate theme of the story is how Democracy–a.k.a. mob rule–ruins the Aristocracy.  The fake aristocrats hired by the Prince of Monte Carlo are the most obvious example of this.  In the end, order can only be restored when the rightful ruler is placed back in charge.

This interpretation does rely on actual evidence from the play–the actors who take over really do dress as ancient Greeks, the commoners who attempt to impersonate aristocrats are portrayed as buffoons, and the opera ends on a happy note only when the original Duke resumes his reign. So, I think this is a theoretically possible interpretation.

Is it actually likely that this is what W.S. Gilbert had in mind when he wrote it, though?  Highly doubtful.  It seems much more likely that he had the characters remake the government in the image of ancient Athens because he had worked up a clever song about it, and he made the Prince of Monte Carlo’s entourage an uncouth band because he thought it was funny.  Anyone familiar with the piece will have  a hard time believing it was trying to make any major statement about forms of government.

People say authorial intent doesn’t matter, and to an extent they’re right–I can believe that people would insert certain ideas in stories without being conscious of it.  But when you have symbolism that, however “logical” it seems, takes you so far away from the obvious character of the work in question that it gives you pause.

I remember reading about the theory that L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was an allegory about the Populist movement.  There is a lot of detail in this theory, and it is pretty thorough, but there’s no evidence that Baum intended it.  According to Wikipedia “it is not taken seriously by literary historians”.  I wonder why.  They take flimsier theories seriously.

As you know from this post, I enjoy alternate interpretations that run contrary to the creator’s ideas.  but still, no matter how plausible you make the case, at a certain point you have to acknowledge it when your interpretation takes you far from what the author originally meant.

If I were an architect, I think my work would be similar to that of the guy who designed the Leaning Tower of Pisa, except with the signature angle accentuated a bit more.  That is to say, it would be the “Giant Pile of Rubble of Pisa.”

I am not skilled in this field. My concept of a building is not complex. My design philosophy is perhaps best represented by this diagram:

I guess there would also be a floor of some sort.

Seriously, that’s it. Even the LEGO buildings that I made as a kid looked about like this. The everyday triangular roof is a tricky concept for me. And just forget about anything with curves! Whenever I see a building with curves, it freaks me out; how do they do that?

I’ve mentioned before my pathetic ignorance of this art. But I’ve been trying to remedy it by reading as much as I can about architectural styles, philosophies, techniques etc. I’m pleased to report that I’ve learned some stuff.

So far, I’d say that the closest thing to my “style”  I’ve seen is the one called “Brutalism“:

Buffalo City Court Building, an example of “Brutalist architecture. From Wikipedia, by user “Fortunate4now”

I like this style. There’s none of this “working with the landscape”.  It seems to say “See this? It’s a building. That’s right, a big freakin’ block for people to go inside of.”  Oh, sure, it’s ugly.  But if I were designing buildings, I’d be concerned mostly with making sure the thing was really solid more than I would be with looks.  I wouldn’t want to be remembered as “the guy whose beautiful building collapsed when a stiff breeze came up at the grand opening”. Maybe I’m too risk averse for this stuff.

Another thing I’ve discovered is about how I learn things.  Some people are “visual” learners: they need to see a picture to understand a concept.  Other people are more abstract, learning stuff by reading about it.  And some people, like me, need both pictures and words–usually several times–before they understand stuff.

If I just read a description of, for instance, Art Nouveau, I can’t picture it in my mind at all.  And if I just see a picture of it, I have no idea what about it makes it distinct from, say, Art Deco.  I have to pretty much carefully read a description of an instance of the one style, while looking at a picture, and then do the same for the other.  It doesn’t come naturally at all.  I think I’ve finally got it, though: AD tends to have more lines, AN tends to have more curves.

So far, that’s what I’ve learned. If I become an expert in the field, I’ll be sure to report back. Although I doubt you can do that just by reading Wikipedia…