Recently I attended a panel discussion at the Princeton University Art Musuem with Bonnie Bassler, Squibb Professor in Molecular Biology and chair, Department of Molecular Biology; Bridget Alsdorf, associate professor of Art and Archaeology; and Göran Blix, associate professor of French and Italian, as they responded to artists’ representations of crowds and shared their perspectives on crowd behavior.
Quite unexpectedly I found Bridget Alsdorf’s observations the most interesting. She discussed her current book project, Theaters of the Crowd, which focuses on representations (across multiple media) of crowds and theatrical audiences in fin-de-siècle France, with particular interest in the cultural phenomenon of gawking (badauderie) and the relationship between art and emerging fields of social psychology. Of particular interest was her observations about and emphasis on those who witness an event as opposed to the event itself.
Why would a man who strides with such unabashed confidence through the literary landscape venture into an art museum and be transfixed by the idea of the gawker? Obviously I dozed off quickly when the discussion veered specifically into the visual arts but just as my eyes closed and my breathing became slowed I realized that the same crowds that Bridget was speaking about with such detached affection were the same crowds I write about.
I know. Quite a revelation. A revelation probably had by 99.9% of writers prior to their attending a lecture such as this but that in no way detracts from the sense of pride I had having had one. Second only to the pride I have for writing a sentence that ends with had having had one.
While Göran Blix (whose name I’ll have to remember the next time I need to give a name to a war criminal in one of my stories) blathered on about French history and Bonnie Bassler prattled on making comparisons between bacteria and human behavior my attention was drawn again and again to the artwork depicting crowds that was littering the place. Really most of my attention was painted but as there were a few sketches I think I’ll stay with my attention being drawn.
Which explains why the Princeton University Library is not littered with any of my books.
Before the reception began the three lecturers indulged the crowd with a little Q&A. Looking out at us I have to wonder how different we looked from the crowds they had been discussing. In this case, the crowd used the Q&A session as an opportunity to make observations that never actually asked a question nor needed an answer. If ever there was a crowd that richly deserved to have a water cannon directed at them it was us.
Which got me to thinking yet again. As you see, there were clearly a half dozen times during the presentation where circumstances dictated that I do some thinking and given I do some thinking only about once a day I couldn’t wait to arrive home where I could sit and not do any thinking whatsoever for the remainder of the week.
Be that as it may, I was there and if there was thinking to be done then I was going to meet the challenge head on. Upon further reflection the crowds that Bridget had spoken about with such detached affection were not the same crowds I write about. I don’t write about crowds and certainly not for crowds. I write from the perspective of one person in the crowd. Usually one of the more demented ones and it usually doesn’t matter what they are spectating. Be it a sporting event, a political rally or the scene of a terrible accident what they’re usually thinking about has very little to do with why they are there.
We’re not bacteria. The wonderful stuff sloshing around in the heads of the assembled gawkers is far more amazing than scholars give them credit for. Far more poignant or stupid than could ever be captured by oil and canvas. Art and literature might be nice hobbies but they pale in comparison to just what is going on behind the eyes of the glorious gawkers making up a crowd.
A picture is worth a thousand words my ass. I’ve written half a thousand stories and there is no painter in the world that could capture the resulting 500 people-in-a-crowd thinking these dumb things to themselves.
Well, maybe Bob Ross.