Weschler’s Wonderful Wit

Weschler’s Wonderful Wit

The entertaining cultural critic Lawrence Weschler (as illustrated by Riva Lehrer)

As prolific writer and cultural critic Lawrence Weschler led a RISD audience through a visual-culture hall of mirrors, he demonstrated an insightful wit and a performer’s mastery of the a-ha! moment. “I want to see what happens when things look alike,” he proposed in a talk playfully entitled In Defense of Loose-Synapsed Moments, or Toward a Taxonomy of Convergences, delivered on October 15 as part of the Glass department’s fall visiting artist series.

“The convergence is the rhyme and you have to write the poem that goes with it,” said Weschler, who has written more than a dozen books including Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder and the National Book Critics Circle Award-winner Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences. A New Yorker staff writer for 20 years, he is now a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University’s Carter Journalism Institute and Director Emeritus of the New York Institute for the Humanities.

Early in his talk, Weschler showed (Untitled) Black on Gray, a 1969 painting by Mark Rothko, side-by-side with a NASA photograph of the moon (taken in July 1969) as an example of convergence. He asked the crowd in the RISD Auditorium to consider what it meant to humanity to discover that the surface of the moon resembles the desolate landscape of one of the final works Rothko produced. In the self-proclaimed spirit of a 19th-century natural historian, he posited a classification system for images that remind people of other images—that carry on visual dialogues with images of the past or of the imagination.

Some convergences stem from apophenia (which Weschler predicted would become a new favorite word for everyone in the audience): “the tendency of human beings to see patterns where there are no patterns.” Others undoubtedly converge upon the same historical reference point or consciously borrow from one another, such as Edouard Manet’s invocation of Goya’s The Third of May 1808 (1814) in The Execution of the Emperor Maximillian of Mexico (1869).

Manet’s painting not only consciously alludes to Goya’s, Weschler points out, but both also converge upon the cultural legacy of the crucifixion story, an example of what he calls convergence by co-causation. Weschler’s historical tour of visual culture bridged the expanse between da San Friano Maso’s 16th-century painting The Diamond Mine and contemporary photographer Michael Najjer’s digitally manipulated mountainscapes.

“The nice thing about convergences is that it really doesn’t matter whether the artist intended the echo in question, consciously or unconsciously,” Weschler concludes. Since art lives on well after the artist, “there will be further witnesses, all the rest of us equally privileged viewers by virtue of the fact that we all draw equally upon and are all equally bathed in the confluences of cross-currents. Convergence, in that sense, is nothing less than another name for a culture in itself.”

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