“Whistler’s Mother” or “Arrangement in Grey and Black”?

In this series of posts, to consider whether chapters and verses specifically should be accepted as an inherent part of the Bible, I’ve been exploring more generally whether the accumulated marks of any artistic creation’s subsequent history as a cultural artifact become part of its essential substance and meaning.  We saw last time, in the case of the Liberty Bell, that the cultural artifact with its distinctive marks of wear—specifically, the famous crack—is actually preferable to the original pristine artistic creation, but only because this is an even better expression of the creators’ intentions.

In other cases, good reasons can be given for stripping away at least some of the marks of an artistic creation’s subsequent history as a cultural artifact, similarly in the interests of preserving or recapturing the creator’s original intention.

Consider the painting that James Abbott McNeill Whistler originally entitled Arrangement in Grey and Black. It has been given the popular title Whistler’s Mother and it has become an icon for motherhood and filial devotion.  In 1934 the U.S. Post Office even issued a stamp “in memory and in honor of the mothers of America“ that included only the figure from Whistler’s painting, not the overall composition, and even added some potted flowers!

It is safe to state that this appropriation of the figure is not just different from, but directly counter to, the artist’s intentions in painting it.  In explaining his artistic philosophy, Whistler once insisted:

Art should be independent of all claptrap—should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it; and that is why I insist on calling my works “arrangements” and “harmonies.”

In other words, Whistler himself explicitly rejected the sentimental approach to art that a title such as Whistler’s Mother would imply.  A viewing of his painting that was informed by this title, and which saw it as an expression of filial love and devotion, would therefore necessarily be in opposition to his intentions.  If we wish to understand the painting at all according to Whistler’s intentions, its popular title, at least, should be stripped away and replaced with the original one, and the figure should be situated within the entire original composition, so that viewers can once again appreciate Whistler’s purposes in painting it.

Some might counter that the figure in the painting has a universal quality, evocative of timeless human experience, that permits and even demands that its meaning not be limited by the views of the man who created it at a particular moment in Western cultural history.  Suppose that’s true.  Then even though we would certainly want to be aware of Whistler’s views and intentions, we could find a meaning in this figure that transcends them and reaches into interpretations that Whistler not only didn’t intend, but would actually have opposed.  In other words, a viewer might, in the end, see greater value in Whistler’s Mother than in Arrangement in Grey and Black.

However, we must note that a viewer making this judgment is not really seeing Arrangement in Grey and Black, but only a detail from it.   It is this detail, isolated from the rest of the composition, that people have used as an icon for filial devotion (as on the 1934 stamp).  Some meaning contrary to the artist’s intentions may be imputed to this isolated figure, but not to the composition as a whole, in its entirety as he created it.

This example shows that if the originally intended form or meaning of an artistic creation has been lost to “cultural associations,” repristinating that creation requires not only stripping away accretions, but also situating isolated parts back within the whole.  In the case of Whistler’s painting, the popular title should be taken away and the rest of the painting should be brought back.  (And the potted flowers have to go, too!)

I’ll conclude this series next time with some thoughts about the Bible in light of the examples I’ve explored.

James Whistler, “Arrangement in Grey and Black,” 1871

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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