In the 1918 Supreme Court decision Towne v. Eisner, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the following:
The word in question at the time was “income”, and the discussion was over whether or not the plaintiff had paid the appropriate taxes. The plaintiff argued that he had paid more tax than was necessary and that his actual income was less than what the IRS claimed. The question could not be answered without first agreeing on what the word “income” meant, so Holmes wrote these eloquent lines about the nature of language.*
By describing a word as the skin of a living thought, Holmes gave a physical human attribute to language. In doing so, he acknowledged the degree to which language is an embodiment of ideas. Like all things with bodies, language changes over time and in different contexts. Most of us are familiar with this, and we effortlessly pick up on the subtle differences in the meaning connoted by a single word when it is used in different situations.
Holmes also wrote about the changing color of words, and so he brought the topic of visual perception into the equation. Interestingly, our perception of color itself is also dependent on context. Josef Albers famously wrote about this in his book The Interaction of Color, and he showed how one color looks radically different depending upon its surroundings. In the image below the double x shape is the same color all the way through, but it appears to shift in tone because of the other colors around it.
In my experience this same thing is true of entire pieces of visual artwork. The context in which we see a piece of art changes our perception of that piece even though it does not change what the artist meant to communicate. For example, the first time I learned about the artist Henry Moore I was in college and looking at a picture in an old book – a black and white picture if I remember correctly. I don’t have the book anymore, but I remember my impression of it. I thought the sculpture was mysterious and modern, but I couldn’t get my head around it (literally or figuratively since it was printed on flat paper).
A couple years later I was living in New York City, and I kept seeing images of Moore’s sculptures printed on the city buses. It was 2008, and the busses were advertising an exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden called “Moore in America”. Twenty of his gigantic sculptures had been shipped over from England and artfully positioned throughout the garden. It was an appropriate way for them to be shown, since Moore himself believed the work was at its best out in nature. He said:
For several weeks I was too busy to actually visit the garden, so I only saw images of the work in little flashes as they flew by me on the ever-moving busses in the bustling city. When I finally did take the train all the way up to the garden in the Bronx, I was struck by the stillness and quiet I felt once I arrived. I was among a small number of weekday visitors to the garden (with the exception of some school groups), so I was almost alone with these Brobdingnagian bronzes. I could walk all the way around them and peer into and through their many carefully hewn holes and internal forms. The sculptures seemed comfortable lounging in the capacious garden as if they had been made for the place rather than temporarily loaned to it.
My view of Moore as a sculptor was richer than it had been before this trip, because rather than reading about him or seeing images of his work, I had experienced the sculptures themselves in a contemplative setting.
Since that time, I have seen Moore’s work in many places, but one other instance stands out. About six weeks ago I was at the Toledo Museum of Art with students. As we were about to leave I hurriedly walked through the modern section of the museum and saw a Henry Moore sculpture in the middle of one of the galleries. It was smaller than those I had seen at the New York Botanical Garden, and the room was partially filled with bold, purple light. The purple light was directed at another piece, but because the space was small the Henry Moore sculpture was bathed in artificially bright color as well - hardly the natural, outdoor setting Moore would have chosen. The sculpture had a strong enough presence in the space, but it seemed a bit smothered, and I could imagine that if it were a sentient being, it would be craving the “open air” Moore thought it deserved. Between the atmosphere in the room and my own feeling of hurry, I simply could not appreciate his work as I once had.
Later, after leaving the museum, I read a bit more about that particular sculpture and discovered that before the Toledo Museum of Art purchased it, Moore kept it outdoors in the garden of his house and studio in Hertforshire, England. I suspect its original home was a more natural environment for it.
Moore’s sculptures are often reminiscent of figures even when they do not explicitly represent them. In that way his sculptures are also like the skin (and flesh) of living thoughts. Since his work is often shown in public spaces, the question of context is a natural one, but it is also one that Moore can no longer control. Since his death in 1986 he has left us with a body of work (a body of work!) that we can ship across oceans, photograph, and print on the sides of busses. We can write about it, draw cartoons about it, and inevitably at some point we will accidentally damage some of it. Because they are large and made out of materials like bronze and stone, his pieces are unlikely to be completely destroyed, but they will almost certainly develop new meanings to new generations. And yet, like words taken from one language into another, they will likely retain some vestiges of their original meaning even as their primary definitions shift.
In one sense this is humbling both to artists (whose work will likely be misunderstood some day) and viewers (who are almost certainly misunderstanding what artists of the past meant to convey). But one could also interpret it as a reason to keep making and keep looking. There are words in the English language that no longer mean what they once did but nevertheless serve an important purpose for speakers today. The word “president”, for example, once meant little more than “foreman”. Its meaning has grown as the role it represents has also grown. In the same way, we do not always know what role a given piece of art will play in the lives of future generations, but it is not impossible that the role will be even greater than the one the artwork has today.
* I was alerted to this quote when I listened to the wonderful podcast Way With Words this past week. Check out their website if you like that sort of thing.