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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Edward Gorey, An Old Memory, and the Meaning of Genius

I don't know exactly where to begin this post because it all happened very fast. It was one of those cases in which if one is not present-minded or observant enough, the moment might just pass by and the opportunity lost. I was at Barnes & Noble the other day. I intended to spend most of my day off simply writing down things, impressions, in short, whatever came to mind. Before I headed to the cafe, I followed my ritual of browsing the discount racks. It was there that an art book caught my eye in the strangest way. I walked by it, but then turned back suddenly and picked it up. Again, it was just a "moment," something difficult to describe. If we are lucky to harness a moment like this, the possibilities are limitless. I don't normally include this type of entry in this blog. This is from my main Moleskine notebook where I write in the second person. I began doing this to avoid going on first person rants that lead nowhere. This could be considered a rant as well, but the ideas that came to my mind made me very happy that day, so you'll have to excuse my naive notion and half-baked ideas of creativity and genius. It is spontaneous writing, and I try to keep very little control of where the ideas go.

"You become obsessed with finding out this bit of a fact on Edward Gorey. Back in 1984, when your cousin pointed out to you the introduction to PBS's "Mystery!" a program he'd begun watching on a regular basis, you didn't think too much about it other than to think it looked interestingly Romanesque/Gothic. You didn't know what these things mean back then, at least not by name, but you realized there was a deeper meaning to them instinctively. Now, picking up the book on Edward Gorey, and remembering the stylistic part of his art that helped you make the connection, you search for the information on the PBS program. There's no index, but rather an academic looking bibliography. You look and look and can't find anything until you get to a timeline of the artist's life. It is there that you find what you were looking for: In 1980, Edward Gorey contributes his art for the intro segment of the PBS program "Mystery!" He does so in collaboration with another artist whose name you didn't bother to make a note of, but you end up assuming he did the animation part of the work. The animation is done in the style of Chinese paper/shadow puppets. All of that from a single glimpse at a cover of a book you never seen before. The connection of two ideas/memories connected only by art. You didn't know the artist's name back in 1984 when you first saw the introduction to "Mystery!" but you were able to identify it simply based on the stylistic aspect of his work as displayed in the cover of the book. It is 2009 now, and your curiosity has been ignited. Why remember that one evening back in 1984 so clearly? You were a different person then, living with a different purpose but you had already been given the key to the life you lead now. You simply rejected it deciding instead to follow a different type of passion. Eventually, you would land where you are now, but not before continuing to sabotage your efforts by again following other passions that, while very noble in principle, had nothing to do with the life of the mind. From 1984 to 2009, what is it, what deep force made you recognize the art of Edward Gorey, and why with such intensity? These are the moments when you think about the meaning of genius. There's the rub of definition. Much like love, the definition of genius has eluded thinkers, historians and poets alike. So, was it genius that made you remember Edward Gorey's art? Is "original style" genius when it comes to visual art, and, if so, how does one write about it? How do you write about something for which there's no universal definition? Perhaps you being to boil it down to the individual rather than starting with the universal. For example, with the art of Edward Gorey it was his originality, his uniqueness, his sense of individualism that identifies him from both the past and his contemporaries (and you dare say the future but that's a whole different argument altogether). Did he think about it? Did he sit for hours consciously making an effort to come up with something entirely new (despite its Romanesque/Gothic influences), or did it just happen spontaneously in a flash of inspiration? Does it have to do with medium? The simplicity of ink and paper? The stroke of that pen so uniquely his that it readily identifiable even if he didn't sign his name to his work? It is as if every stroke of the pen, every line, shadow and figure screams "I am Edward Gorey. I am an artist!" Was this what drew you to the book? Did you hear that scream calling you back? As this the sound that helped you make the connection from 1984 to today? Edward Gorey, artist, inarguably a genius, unique in art and allegory, calling you back to the cover of that book and saying, "hey, remember me?" Perhaps this short sound is what describes genius. Genius is in the act of appreciation; with the viewer/art lover, Gorey's art is simply a collection that amounts to nothing but some dark chaotic mathematical formulae. It means nothing without the audience to make sense of it and give it life.

Earlier you mentioned something about genius and the future, and the fact that it was another argument altogether. What you hinted at when you said future and how Edward Gorey's art identifies itself against the past and his contemporaries deals with the current challenge of not identifying genius by its ability to defeat time. That is to say, present academic circles shun from identifying genius by the use of the proverbial "stands the test of time" equation. In 100 years perhaps there will be a handful of scholars who may specialize on Gorey's art and keep his memory and art alive. Or perhaps there might be a revival in 50 or 60 years and Edward Gorey will be elevated to the canon of Western art right along Picasso, Richter, Miro, etc., or who knows who might still be recognized as genius then. While you don't hold any particular liberal or conservative stance on this argument, you do believe that it is a shame to keep something so unique as genius out of any canon of academic study simply because it is out dated, or because it offends some politically correct sensitivity. Yes, Shakespeare and Hemingway and even Martin Luther were anti-Semitic (and rabidly so). Certainly you are not advocating this type of irrationality (hate), and even more because while you were baptized and raised as a Catholic, deep down inside, at the very core of your being, you know you are a Jew. Your argument simply states that, for example, Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" is highly anti-Semitic, it shouldn't be excluded from academic study. We shouldn't hold Shakespeare to our moral standards. Yes, indeed, we do know better and as the result of our knowing it falls upon us not to judge Shakespeare by our standards. His past (and the past in general) was anti-Semitic; anti-Semiticism colored everything... it was the gestalt and as natural as attending Catholic mass every Sunday. Thankfully, the post-World War II woke us up. But you digress... at the core of the argument stands the salt of it: any limitation to serious academic and scholarly study or creative pursuit is censorship and censorship of any kind is counter to the artistic and scholastic spirit and the pursuit of genius. Nothing is outdated. Nothing is offensive. There's room for all in the great tent of the mind."

Of course, I rambled more than I made sense while writing this, but, like I said, it was just one of those moments that makes the mind explode and the avalanche of words is too fast for the hand to keep up. Long live memory and Edward Gorey's art! Genius beyond argument!

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At 9:50 PM, Blogger ArtSparker said...

His work has a kind of integrity, I think.

At 2:58 PM, Blogger M.M.E. said...

Absolutely love Gorey. He's the reason I became an illustrator.


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