Friday, December 18, 2009

Spellbound: Art and Letters

What happens when visionary art meets a poor speller?

Mistakes! That's what happens. Errors for eternity.

Any time I walk into a gallery or museum and notice words on a canvas, I grow tense. What stupid homophone will have tripped up an artist this time?

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not a Miss Thistlebottom who complains to her local news station that the news anchor ended a sentence with a preposition. I don't redline friends' letters to me and send them back as a "teaching moment." Nor am I the kind of editor who fusses over split infinitives in a campaign speech that's supposed to sound conversational. (All true stories, unfortunately.)

But I'm friends with enough visual artists to know that, for many of them, spelling is not their strong suit. And I suspect they know this about themselves as well. So why in the world do they take chances—mingling type and visuals—without allowing a wordsmith to give the work a once-over?

Case in point: The Ad Reinhardt cartoon above was in a book I was reading recently. (Visit Hilary Pfeifer's blog for a larger version.) I intended to take time reading every little bit of it, but first I scanned it. And where do you think my eyes fell first? On the misspelled surname of Georgia O'Keeffe. I wasn't looking for it; it jumped out at me.

Maybe I'm alone in my frustration. Maybe I'm cursed with an affliction. Let's call it spellbound: to be caught and transfixed by misspelled words. (Is this usage in the OED?)

Perhaps this is a side biz for me. I'll charge a flat fee to give my editorial seal of assurance to artists that the words in their work won't embarrass them. That they've used the right word with the right meaning and the right spelling.

What do you think? Ridiculously inconsequential idea? Or entrepreneurial path off the dole?

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