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Jack Smith

Meaning Is in the Eyes, Ears of the Beholder

December 30, 1987|Jack Smith

From time to time, either to agree with it or disagree with it, I have quoted the supposedly ancient aphorism, "One picture is worth a thousand words."

It has a universal appeal; one's first reaction is almost always, "How true;" but on second thought; its verity disappears. I have now forgotten the context, but reader H. A. Kelly reminds me that I recently quoted it as "One picture is worth more than 1,000 words," adding that it was "a statement of extremely dubious truth, which is of Chinese origin."

Kelly notes: "You should have said that its Chinese origin is also extremely dubious. Read the enclosed account of the maxim from Burton Stevenson's Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Familiar Phrases (Macmillan)."

The entry reads: " 'One look is worth a thousand words.' Fred R. Barnard, in Printer's Ink, 8 Dec., 1921. He changed it to 'One picture is worth a thousand words' in Printer's Ink, 10 March, 1922, and called it 'a Chinese proverb, so that people would take it seriously.' It was immediately credited to Confucius."

I am glad to have the saying nailed down in the form I prefer. Bartlett's, by the way, quotes it as "One picture is worth more than 10,000 words," and calls it a Chinese proverb. If it is indeed of Chinese origin, and the Bartlett's version is correctly quoted, we owe our thanks to Barnard for the simpler form he achieved. It is quite enough, for the point, to say that "one picture is worth a thousand words." Nothing is gained by making it 10,000 words, and nothing is gained by making it "more than."

Yet another version, by the way, is offered by Pat Lewis, associate professor of art and education at Whittier College. "When I was doing research in the visual arts," she writes, "I encountered an alternative translation: 'One seeing is worth a thousand hearings.' "

As for its truth, whichever version you like, it depends of course on what is being portrayed. A good photograph of Marilyn Monroe obviously tells us what she looked like more than 1,000 words could. But it wouldn't tell us anything more about her than what she looked like. You couldn't guess.

What would the police rather have? A thousand words describing a suspect, or a good mug shot? Certainly in human identification a photograph is worth 1,000 words, or 10,000.

Artists, musicians and photographers express abstract ideas through their work, but the meaning is often left to the eye or ear of the beholder. I am never sure that I am getting the right message. When I go to an opera or a concert I always read the program notes to tell me what the music is about. But certainly the visual and audio arts, even if you don't know what they mean, are usually more moving than mere words.

I have an idea that Barnard is the true author of the saying. In the first place, I notice a tendency in books of quotations to attribute anything unidentifiable to the ancient Chinese, who sometimes are represented as the founts of all wisdom. Confucius, for example, is credited with saying, "I have never seen a man as fond of virtue as of women." Certainly man's nature has not changed from that proclivity in the last 1,400 years, as our newspapers have recently informed us.

Confucius is also supposed to have advised, "Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish--don't overdo it." How much more pleasant life would be on our planet if all great nations, and small, observed that rule.

But I suspect that "One picture is worth a thousand words" was invented by Barnard, if only because a recent invention, the camera, has given it such validity.

For showing us what a thing looks like, what it is, on the surface, no medium is superior to a photograph. Who among us of World War II vintage can ever forget Betty Grable looking back over her shoulder in that bathing suit; or Rita Hayworth in that lace negligee on her bed. But what did we know of them as women?

As for the ideas by which we live, what pictures could portray the Gettysburg Address, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Ten Commandments--to cite only three of hundreds of examples--all of them fewer than 1,000 words.

What if all we knew of George Washington was Gilbert Stuart's portraits?

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