My duties here at the newspaper vary in size and scope – writing, editing, light vacuuming – but one of the tasks I especially enjoy is selecting the daily quote for the editorial page.
One of my favorite quotes is by that prolific author, “Anonymous.” I’ve never used it on the page, but it’s such a wonderfully concise piece of advice that, in terms of profundity, the quote might be up there with the Golden Rule:
“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
Off the top of your head, you probably can think of half a dozen examples proving this nugget of wisdom. The example that stuck with me in the past year was the little old lady in Spain.
Cecilia Gimenez regularly volunteered at her village church, which is home to an impressive 19th-century fresco of Jesus titled Ecce Homo (“Behold the Man”). The faded fresco was in need of restoration, so the 80-something parishioner got some paint and decided to do a little more “volunteering.”
The result, by one British press account, resembled “a hairy gorilla.” The restoration attempt was so horrifyingly bad that the poor woman became an international joke. Señora Gimenez was embarrassed – until she realized that her botched painting became an unlikely tourist attraction. Then she asked for royalties.
Such is the burden of creative genius. For every person who creates a masterwork –something truly remarkable – there’s at least one guy (or old lady) out there who thinks they can do it better. I can just picture some slack-jawed jerk peering over Leonardo da Vinci’s shoulder as he put the finishing touches on the Mona Lisa: “Hey, Leo. You know what would look good on her? Eyebrows. Here, let me borrow that paintbrush and show you what I mean ... .”
You remember the story, possibly true, about Mozart? Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II commissioned Mozart to write an opera, and when the monarch first heard it, his complaint to Mozart cemented him in history as one of the planet’s most meatheaded music critics: “That is too fine for my ears – there are too many notes.”
Sure. Too many notes. Because what would Mozart know about music, right?
Some critics are more do-it-yourself. Last October, Vladimir Umanets entered London’s Tate Modern art gallery and signed his own name to Mark Rothko’s 1958 mural Black on Maroon, adding the phrase “a potential piece of yellowism.” Yellowism apparently is an art movement he started.
Umanets’ explanation? “Art allows us to take what someone’s done and put a new message on it.” Well, the law allowed a judge to sentence Umanets to two years in prison.
The Chronicle’s own Rick McKee faces the same kind of hassles. Oh yes. More than once, he has found one of his meticulously rendered political cartoons somewhere on the Web, repurposed by someone sorely lacking artistic vision. Remember the cartoon Rick did showing an airport security officer performing a cavity search on a Thanksgiving turkey? A blogger thought the cartoon would look better with excessive verbiage and if the TSA guy had Rolling Stones-style tongue and lips.
“Can I use that on my blog?” he asked Rick.
“No,” Rick said. “Ever.”
Everyone’s a critic.
Which brings us to the subject of dirty books. I mean, ahem, adult fiction.
Have you read the runaway best-seller Fifty Shades of Grey? You have too. It’s either in your nightstand drawer right now or tucked away in your e-reader. It has sold 65 million copies. And depending on your world-view, the book’s explicit sex scenes make it either (a) a breakthrough in erotic literature, or (b) smut.
Now a publisher – seeing at least 50 shades of green – has released a line of books in which classics by such literary giants as Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters are given the Grey treatment.
Which is to say, they get dirtied up.
“We’re not rewriting the classics,” Claire Siemaszkiewicz, founder of Total-E-Bound Publishing and its imprint Clandestine Classics, told The UK Huffington Post. “We’re keeping the original prose and the author’s voice. We’re not changing any of that. But we want to enhance the novels by adding the ‘missing’ scenes for readers to enjoy.”
But “missing” implies they were supposed to be there in the first place. They weren’t. I mean, did Emily Brontë really intend for Heathcliff and Catherine to have kinky sex? Because that’s what they’re doing in the Clandestine Classics version of Wuthering Heights. And if Jules Verne wanted Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea to include a steamy love triangle among Captain Nemo, the professor and the harpoonist, he would’ve done it instead of leaving it to Clandestine Classics 142 years later.
We all have that one misguided friend who puts ketchup on everything to make food taste better. Similarly, readers don’t need sex in everything to make literature more riveting. And movie fans don’t need color splashed on classic black-and-white films to make them more watchable.
Even in art, there is such a thing as going too far.