03 May 2006

Stendhal Syndrome - Too Much Art

We were speaking of over-exposure to art in an earlier thread. I just discovered there's a name for a malady that comes from this: Stendhal Syndrome (or Stendhal's Syndrome) -- a condition of "dizziness, panic, paranoia, or madness caused by viewing certain artistic or historical artifacts or by trying to see [too much art] in too short a time." Named after the 19th century French novelist Stendhal (pseudonym of Marie-Henri Beyle), who experienced this overwhelming sensation upon visiting the art museums of Florence, Stendhal Syndrome has been observed and documented in many visitors to Florence since then. (Incidentally, in the course of reading up on this subject, I discovered a very useful online resource: ArtLex Art Dictionary.)

We live in a consumer culture that values more possessions, more experiences, more knowledge, more of everything. As I mentioned in that earlier thread, it is characteristic of the sin of gluttony. There's a New York Times Bestseller called 1,000 Places To See Before You Die. Glutton for books that I am, I bought it. Even browsing through that book makes me less satisfied with what I've already seen.

Sometimes less is more. We do better to get to know intimately a few key works of art or beautiful places in the world than lust after accumulating tick-marks on a list of all the greatest ones. I feel a bit sheepish now about having reeled off (in an earlier post) a list of the great art museums of the world that I've been to, as it kind of smacks of this sort of conquest mentality. It's still a great privilege, but I need to keep it in perspective.

I think I sometimes experience Stendhal Syndrome with the vast amount of art that is available for viewing now on the Internet, in books, and easily accessible in museums with how much traveling I do. I have more art books than I can possibly absorb in a lifetime. I don't think I've spent the time to get to know well even one of the paintings reproduced in them, yet I keep accumulating more such books on my shelves, as if that will make me knowledgeable about art. "Of the making of many books there is no end." Ah, to spend four hours in front of one great painting like Henri Nouwen did, and allow God to change me through that encounter, rather than flipping through the pages of a book of 150 of them.

1 comment:

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich gave this advice to his students: Know fewer great works of music but know them better.