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The Tyranny of the Word


I’m interested in almost anything to do with trees — I’ve made a website that expresses that interest — so I’m interested in the series of images by Zander Olsen called “Tree, Line”, of which you can see an example above.

What I am manifestly not interested in is descriptions like this:

This is an ongoing series of constructed photographs rooted in the forest. These works, carried out in Surrey, Hampshire and Wales, involve site specific interventions in the landscape, ‘wrapping’ trees with white material to construct a visual relationship between tree, not-tree and the line of horizon according to the camera’s viewpoint.

Gee, I was enjoying the images until you described it for me that crudely and explicitly.

I’m making a complaint here that Tom Wolfe made long ago in his little book The Painted Word, but I think it’s still valid. The Painted Word is not an especially good book overall — it’s reductive and simplistic about many things — but at the heart of the book there’s a powerful and important statement about the ways in which the visual arts have become subservient to language, especially the written word, so that not just critics but the artists themselves seem to feel that some kind of analytical/critical/theoretical description is a necessary accompaniment to the artwork.

But any painting or sculpture or, to use a very recent term for a very recent thing, “installation” that’s worth its salt ought to be able to stand alone, without words. I actually really like the photo above a good deal: I think it’s visually interesting, if not profound. I appreciate what you’ve made there, Zander Olsen; please don’t mess it up by explaining it to me.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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