Thursday, July 20, 2006

visual literacy

In a new memoir, “Let Me Finish,” Roger Angell recalls trips to the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium in the 1930’s with his father, who also liked to join pickup games when middle-age American men still did that.

Today baseball is like the arts, with grown-ups mostly preferring not to break a sweat. “We know everything about the game now, thanks to instant replay and computerized stats, and what we seem to have concluded is that almost none of us are good enough to play it,” Mr. Angell writes.

So it is with classical music, painting and drawing, professional renditions of which are now so widely available that most people probably can’t or don’t imagine there’s any point in bothering to do these things themselves. Communities of amateurs still thrive, but they are self-selecting groups. A vast majority of society seems to presume that culture is something specialists produce.


We have given it up, at a cost that, as Franklin might have put it, is beyond words. Mr. Angell goes on in his book to say that television and sports journalism have taught us all about the skills and salaries and private lives of professional ballplayers, on whom we now focus, instead of playing the game ourselves.

As a consequence, he writes, “we don’t like them as much as we once did, and we don’t like ourselves much, either.”

Michael Kimmelman writing about «Teaching America to Draw», an exhibition at the Grolier Club, in « An Exhibition About Drawing Conjures a Time When Amateurs Roamed the Earth» in Wednesday’s New York Times.

Kimmelman has a point, but I think too that he needs to spend a little time online to see the amateurism that’s flowering around him – on places like blogger and typepad and youtube and flickr. The tools have changed, but the impulse to “preserve a cherished sight, a memory” and tell a story remains the same.

Although I’m with him on his central point: it sucks that so few of us can draw – can really illustrate – any more. We’ve lost an important form of literacy – and there’s no reason to believe that we’ll be able to, or even attempt to, restore it.

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