Artworks ruined by overexposure

The ever-insightful James Twitchell offers a list:

1. The Mona Lisa

2. Grant Wood’s American Gothic

3. Washington Crossing the Delaware

4. Whistler’s Mother

5. Munch’s The Scream (we will see whether its theft resurrects its aesthetic oomph)

I’ll add Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of George Washington to the list. Nor am I happy about the “Mondrian bag” and “Mondrian shampoo.” Twitchell continues: “Monet, Picasso, Degas, Cezanne, Gauguin, and van Gogh are just on the edge of becoming cliches.” And you’ll have to Google those images yourself, I won’t add to the problem!

We have a classic tragedy of the commons. I like surprise and power in art, but many different suppliers of images wish to be the ones who deliver the effect. The end result is that the surprise is used up too quickly; the images then bore rather than delight. Many of the most serious public goods problems are embedded in the neuroeconomy of the human mind.

The Test of Time is so difficult to predict in art. A given image can appear powerful in 2004 but by 2030 it is trite. Sitting in 2004, it is hard to imagine how the power might go away.

The same is less true for music, which taps into our nervous systems more directly and is more universal. But still there are examples:

…who can ever listen again to Sousa’s “Liberty Bell March” without seeing that giant foot come down from above, squashing the cartoon figures from Monty Python’s Flying Circus [TC: could this be an improvement?], or hear Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no.2 without seeing that great piano virtuouso Bugs Bunny pounding it out with such wabbit aplomb?

Not to mention Rossini’s William Tell Overture, better known as the theme song for The Lone Ranger. Thomas Schelling once told me that he refused to listen to Bach every day because he wanted to keep those delights for his old age.

The material is from Twitchell’s new and excellent Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College Inc., and Museumworld.


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