Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Of Works and Artifacts, or Why You Can Touch up the Sistine Chapel but not Codex Sinaiticus

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Workers restore the scene “original sin”
in the Sistine Chapel (photo credit)
What makes it wrong to alter a great manuscript but not a great painting? I think many of us instinctively know there’s a difference but would not be able to articulate what it is. The best answer I’ve found rests on the difference between the nature of a literary work and a painting. The difference is important because it has implications for how we think about recovering literary works from the past. G. Thomas Tanselle explains:
The painting exists at a single location, and one has nowhere else to go to find the work except that one place.... In contrast, a piece of paper with a text of a poem written on it does not constitute a work of literature, and therefore any alterations one makes in the manuscript do not automatically alter the work. If one cleans a dirty spot on a manuscript and reveals a word not legible before, the word is unquestionably a part of the text of the document, but it is not necessarily a part of the literary work nor, for that matter, is any other word in the document, for the work can only be reconstituted through the application of critical judgment to each element of every surviving text (even if there is only one, and it is the only one there has ever been). Similarly, if one touches up a manuscript by writing over an indistinct word or by marking out a word and entering another, one is certainly altering the document, but one does not thereby change the work. Such alteration of documents is regarded, by all who revere historical evidence, as a scandalous activity; but the equivalent alteration of paintings, frescoes, and sculptures is frequently advocated by responsible scholars, deeply committed to the recovery of the past. The ethics of altering artifacts shifts in the second situation because the work and the artifact inhabit the same body, and the work is considered more important. (A Rationale of Textual Criticism, pp. 27-28)
My favorite question that gets at the heart of the matter is the one asked by Paul Eggert: “If the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, where is Hamlet?” (Securing the Past, p. 215). We could just as well ask, “If the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, where is the Bible?” It seems to me that textual criticism of the Bible is an attempt to answer the latter question.

8 comments :

  1. I think there is less of a difference than suggested here if one compares a material instance of a text and a work of art, or else compares a copy or ideal form of either. E.g., The Mona Lisa is in the Louvre and the Lindisfarne Gospels are in the British Library. But each is, in a different since, online. The text of the Lindisfarne Gospels could be represented in some way, abstracted from the manuscript, similar to a digital representation of The Mona Lisa that might be found on, say, wikipedia. Of course, there remains a crucial difference between text and image.

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  2. Text is a coded represenation of language utterances. Minor changes in the physical symbols do not affect the designated utterances. With paintings there is a far less sharp boundary between the sign and the signified.

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  3. While an "original" painting might hang in a particular museum, when artists go there and make their copies of such (and many do, where permitted), the copies will all resemble the original, even if derivative. That would seem to be the equivalent of what has taken place in terms of textual transmission, except that in museum instances further copies of the copied painting are usually not part of the continuing process.

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  4. Josh, that abstraction of text from artifact is the point. A textual work can exist in non-material form whereas a painting can't. So the latter is always physically circumscribed in a way a textual work is not.

    Maurice, your example doesn't quite work since no one would confuse (conceptually) a copy of the Mona Lisa with the Mona Lisa itself (herself?).

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  5. Peter, my suggestion above is that a fairer comparison would be between material instances of either. Your second sentence illustrates the problem. Why not compare a painting with a codex, or else, compare a 'work of art' with a 'textual work'--something closer to apples-to-apples? In the latter case, why should we not be able to conceive of a work of art in an abstract manner? I grant that 'text' and 'image' have distinguishing features, but I think semiotics teaches us that they are quite similar in how they signify.

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  6. Josh, the point is that a textual work is non-material such that there is no apple-to-apples comparison as the level of the work with a painting. But could you conceive of a non-material painting? I'm not sure I can; but maybe I should be able to?

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  7. Also I realized that my first sentence of the post was backwards! I fixed that.

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  8. Peter, we may be talking past each other. The term 'painting' already suggests materiality (similar to 'codex'), so I would prefer 'work of art' as a better comparison to a 'textual work' (as in my previous comment). To answer your question: Yes, I can conceive of a work of art in my mind, abstracted from its original material instance, quite easily--the image of the Mona Lisa (which, as it happens, I've never seen in person). Perhaps a useful example would be some instance of the stations of the cross, perhaps in stained glass. (Again, I'm not saying that there are no differences between a textual work and a work of art, just that the original comparison underplays the similarities.)

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