Art Review: Xiaoze Xie “The Brooklyn Historical Society (Civil War)”

19 Nov

Today, we’re going to look at the painting “The Brooklyn Historical Society (Civil War)” by Xiaoze Xie.  You may look up the painting yourself via google, when you join me, if you like.  I am not going to place it in this article because 1) I don’t have rights to the image and 2) this blog is about words and language over everything else, and I am not going to put pictures in it at this time.

What we have here is a painting of a row of brown books, different thicknesses, all approximately the same height, worn and crumbling.  Many pieces of paper stick out from the top, folded up, and though their shapes are slightly different, the papers are all the same in the top.  We can’t read any of the titles.  The background is grey atmosphere , all shadows and light.

My first reaction was one of delight.  I remember grey library days, wandering aimlessly down the aisles, and searching for the older books, liking how they looked and how they smelled, and how if the books had been there a while, it would be hard to dislodge one from the row.  I loved college libraries the best, because sometimes they saved the oddest books, and they gave off the air of forgotten things longing to be viewed again.

But as I look closer, I find the picture a little strange–why are all the papers the same?  Was there a bunch of Brooklyn Civil War scholars who came through and saved the bits they loved best?  Probably not.  Probably these are books slated to be thrown out/sold by the library.  Looking closely, the papers have not been placed carefully, they’re all bent up and squished.   The books are so decrepit that I have to look twice to make sure I’m seeing the spines and not the front of the books.  Even the way they’re painted, the books look like they’re melting before our very eyes, interesting architecture for sure, all the flaps and pieces, but there’s an extreme temporariness about these books, like we’re seeing them only moments before they turn to dust.

And of course that brings me to history–all these books were, I guess, histories of the American Civil War.  Hopefully, at some point somebody found them interesting, but looking at them now, I don’t see much promise of interest.  One thing about history is that it’s always changing–a series of books written about the Civil War in the twenties would have a very different story than the one we have now, which will be very different than one a few generations from now.    Histories fade, and in fact there’s a great case for any history saying more about the current time it was written in than the time it was written about.

That leads me to think about books vs. electronic media, how the value of books that cannot be altered is their permanency.  Short of destruction, the words in a book stay the same from generation to generation, even as the language changes.  Electronic media is anything BUT permanent, in fact its fluency is one of its selling points.  However, mightn’t that change the way we think?  If the Truth with a capital T is in a book, isn’t it more like lower-case truth on the internet, shifting, indeterminable, amorphous?

But hasn’t it always been this way?  That’s the conclusion I get from this painting.  Old truths die, they moulder in the back of libraries, unread, and crumble away.  I’m not saying that everything is subjective–but maybe every idea is, and what are books but collections of ideas?

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