The Museum -vs- The Library: A Wordy Post on Clichés

Posted by on Sep 14, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

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I recently wrote a poem in which the speaker wanders through a special exhibit in a semi-fictional museum, and is given some extra information about the paintings by an unnerving docent. This phenomenon is one fairly common to our culture; the attending guard person has spent their work days in front of the same room of paintings for months, maybe years, and their knowledge of the histories of those specific pieces is therefore much more intimate and, frequently, a little spooky. Museums themselves are relatively odd archival structures— dedicated to preservation and demonstration in a way other archives, libraries, and storage facilities are not.

I think this has something to do with our collective and fierce fascination with authenticity. Last fall, I took a freshman seminar, as most freshman are required to do, and for several weeks we sunk our teeth into chapters from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. In the first two sections, Berger brings up some fascinating points about our continued and, often, incorrect adoration of that which seems authentic. The Mona Lisa, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Picasso’s Guernica— all paintings we prize for how they exist as originals, and not how they exist in reproduction. Seeing one “in person” carries a magnificent weight that seeing a reproduction does not.

There is a fundamental difference between visual art and written art because of how we interpret and underscore authentic material. Museums are structures created to protect the reality of what we consider to be effective visual art made by people who, in one way or another, had or have some historic significance. Curators and collectors are the arbiters of authenticity, of what is good enough.  Libraries, by comparison, protect the books themselves, but trust an entirely independent network of editors, publishers, readers, and agents to weed out the inauthentic, to prevent the bad from ever coming into existence in a public way.

Visual arts have been intended to be scarce for millennia; books have been intended to be mass-produced since the printing press was invented. Therefore, the authenticity of museum art is determined by its singularity (there is only one of these) as well as its impact, whereas written art is determined by its impact alone— the authenticity of written art is determined by the words themselves, and not how many times those words have been reprinted. The “singularity” of written work lies in its originality, and its lack of cliché, which is inextricably bound up in its impact.

When I am reading through the submissions log, cliché’s jump out like sore thumbs, and everybody on staff sees them immediately. This is because we have been conditioned to praise originality, and we know when something is a poorer repeat of a previously expressed idea— we can tell the postcard from the real painting.  So, writers are often pressured, by themselves or others, to focus heavily on being original. 

Do you remember being in second grade surrounded by primary colors and furniture sized for your height, playing the opposites game? Teacher says nice, class says mean, teacher says pretty, class says ugly— that parroting has unfortunately provided our brains with an excellent loophole to the problem of the cliché. Just write the opposite!

My point with all this is to say no, please, do not just write the opposite of a perceived cliché. There is something basic and primitive in all of us that wants this to be the easy fix, but in reality, this solution just breeds another cliché, an anti-cliché, but nonetheless still unoriginal.

To break away from one movement and begin again in opposition to that heritage is to create art honestly. To see a repetition and reverse it is to do what other people will already be doing, and, frankly, it doesn’t work. We live in an authenticity-driven culture, but the only real way to attain the desired originality is to not really think about it and, as a friend once said, just write.


plane photoFaith Padgett was born and raised in the suburbs of Texas and is currently a Creative Writing/Spanish double major at Oberlin College in northern Ohio. Her poems have appeared in Hanging Loose and several anthologies including the Poetry Society of Texas’ student anthologies and the YoungArts anthology for 2014. She has won several Scholastic regional silver and gold keys, and was a semi-finalist in the Presidential Scholars program in 2014. When not working for Spry or writing, Faith can be found sipping tea with a book of poetry or walking through the prairie with one of her four adopted mutts. 

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