Thursday, October 8, 2009

Folk Art in Moby-Dick

The greatest scholars, and the greatest writers, have an insatiable curiosity and an abiding respect for all humankind. This broad and far-reaching humanism is rare in any field, but there are dramatic exceptions. Herman Melville is one of these bright spots.

Folk art was appreciated by a few enlightened individuals by the 1920s, and only gained widespread acceptance in the 1970s. This is why it is astonishing to me that Melville thought enough of the material to devote a chapter to it in the middle of his classic Moby-Dick way back in 1851. In this chapter, entitled “Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in Stone; in Mountains; in Stars,” Melville describes an old sailor on the London docks, displaying his stump of a leg and a painting of the whaling incident that cost him his appendage. Three whale boats, three whales. One whale crushing a boat – and the sailor within – in its massive jaws. In a statement that would only provoke derision until more than a century later, Melville proclaims “His three whales are as good whales as were ever published in Wapping [a dock district in London].”

Melville goes on to praise all manner of folk art of the sea, including whaling scenes like that described above (and the ones in the Mystic Historical Society, left, and in the Fenimore Art Museum collection below) and especially scrimshaw (the incising or carving of scenes or figures into whale teeth or bone, such as the Frederick Myrick tooth at the bottom) as “lively,” “ingenious,” and “miraculous.” He compares the scrimshander’s “maziness of design” with the legendary patterns of Achilles’ shield and the woodcuts of Albrecht Durer.

Radical words for 1851. And written by someone who knew his subject, knew how to capture a whale in body and spirit. Melville’s profound respect for sailors and their artwork is instructive and inspirational. It shows us how powerful and relevant the works of folk artists can be.

Especially when your art studio is a bunk below decks and you have to fit in your carving time between marathon fights to the death with a pale behemoth.

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