Dear Science, I Love You: A Farewell to Dilettantism

14Aug11

When I first started thinking about grad school, I considered the History of Science for a long time. Library Science won out for reasons of practicality and projected intellectual engagement, I guess, and I think I made the right choice. I still get really excited about Natural and Medical Histories, and about the Enlightenment, and Wunderkammern. I get just as excited about the ways in which we can access the artifacts of those histories, and nerdiest of all, how we can organize them and give them credibility on the internet. I get surprisingly emotional when I look through the Wellcome Images archive, which has myriad collections, most notably of medical images. I become equally twitterpated when I look through Getty Digital Collections. I will be honest and say that sometimes I cannot bring myself to spend more than a few minutes perusing. I get overwhelmed by not only the beauty of the images, or the wealth of information attached to them; I am also moved nearly to tears thinking about the way this is presented.* Gorgeous scans of every detail of a scrap book, from cover to endpapers.  For example, the image above, from the Getty’s Flowers and Pictures of the Holy Land. I am remarkably irreligious. This book doesn’t change that. But if you look at it (2nd result on this page), and you feel something, maybe you’ll understand me a little better. For some reason it all makes me feel very inadequate, like although this is the field in which I am studying, my little peanut brain could not possibly comprehend to contribute anything. Part of what is so stirring is the incongruous nature of the pairing of the base–the manuscript, the engraving, whatever, maybe hundreds of years old–and the refinedly high tech database and user interface.
*I would like to make a footnote here about Tumblr, which is the fucked up slacker bastardization of these beautiful libraries, and I will admit I can click through pages and pages for a long time on Tumblr, but it feels wrong, and images are divorced from their contexts, which is fine, but dangerous, and I am concerned for the well intentioned teenagers of today who do not care about provenance unless they are talking about pictures of their hair. CONTEXT. ATTRIBUTION. KNOWLEDGE. Again, I defer to Roger Ebert’s wonderful article. That said, there are brilliant things happening on Tumblr, notably 50 Watts and Public Collectors, both of whom have other more official sites, and my new favorite, fax blog. My tumblr is just as retarded as the teenagers’, by the way. I post my art on there and should anyone deign to reblog it, all attribution is gone.

A young Venetian woman, aged 23, depicted before and after Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In school we have talked about creating a simulacrum of the experience of holding and reading from a book, or of looking at a painting in a museum. Arguably, experiencing any historical object is not a primary experience. That manuscript was never intended to be owned by anyone but that king, and that painting was left to rot under the artist’s bed. Yet, behold! We have it. Sometimes we know how we got it, and how it ended up in a white cube type museum setting. One of my professors is really bothered by this fate, because paintings and art for many centuries never knew galleries like this, they were destined for bedrooms or whatever. There is a photographer who takes pictures in the homes of art collectors, and so you see things like a well appointed bedroom with a fucking Jasper Johns flag hanging over the headboard. And maybe we think, that is so WRONG. Again, incongruous. Like, who do they think they are? That belongs in a museum. Where does that come from? The thinking that famous works of art belong to everyone? I’m about to get snobby, should I stop? Take the Mona Lisa. It’s famous, sure. Does anyone actually give a shit about the Mona Lisa? Who goes to the Louvre stops and thinks about it or reads about it or about Leonardo or actually fucking LOOKS at it? I’ve never seen it, granted. But I think for a lot of people, who are not Art History people, which is totally great, ok, it’s like a celebrity, or a rite of passage, it’s a thing, like the pyramids, you get your picture taken with it and move on. And honestly, coming down from my imitation ivory tower, what else could possibly be done? Everyone wants to see these thing, and everyone wants to touch them, but you can’t, because things fall apart. You can’t go in the caves at Lascaux because the mere act of your breathing will ruin everything. I’m not going to talk about preservation here, and the issues there, so I’ll digress.

FAX BLOG

I feel like a dilettante a lot of the time and I don’t want to. I think I’ve got a pretty good brain, but I get freaked out and unfocused. I’m only this far into my program and I’ve already questioned everything I thought I knew I wanted to do. I’ve got one foot in my love of anachronism and Scientific Revolution fetishism and the other foot is getting really into the possibilities of digital libraries. I’m hopelessly and hopefully nerdy and my whole mode of existing is changing to accommodate that.

Abe

As to the feeling inadequate thing, I guess it’s because although I love collections and collecting, I collect juice glasses. Lonely juice glasses from thrift stores. I have one pair that my mom gave me and they are among my most prized possessions. Seen here is one, with orange juice, along with a big jar of maté. Keeping my mind sharp.

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