What Did You Just Call Me?
This past week I finally finished my Rome Prize project. I immediately rewarded myself by taking off for a weekend at the beach just north of Rome.
As I’ve been coming to a close with this piece, I have struggled with putting a title to it. A song cycle of five movements, it comprises texts in Latin (the 1555 papal bull condemning the Jews of Rome to a ghetto), Italian (Verrà la morte e avrà I tuoi occhi, by Cesare Pavese), Hebrew (various psalms and excerpts from the book of Lamentations) and English (Loan, by the American poet Jorie Graham).
At first, I wished to call the work Cum Nimis Absurdum (“Since it is Absurd”), referring to the papal bull. The work itself begins with this text and is ferociously set with vicious, fast, aggressive string writing immediately setting the tone for a work that begins angrily. But taken as a whole, the piece, at least as I see it, is one of reconciliation and hope. So I then considered calling it Verrà la morte e avrà I tuoi occhi (“Death will come and she shall have your eyes”). Still quite dramatic, I thought, but at least not in Latin (alienating).
I emailed the two choices to one of the foremost experts on Jewish history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He responded:
Since you asked me, I’ll give you an honest opinion:
I wouldn’t “fool around” with “Cum nimis absurdum” because it marks a tragic episode in Jewish history. As to Pavese’s poem, the title, in my opinion, is too long; moreover, its first three words are likely to scare off the audience before the piece gets started.
Of course I should have known better than to ask an academic for title advice. I asked one of the literature fellows at the American Academy. She also felt that at Latin title was off-putting. She liked the Pavese poem, though preferably in English.
Death will come and she shall have your eyes.
I liked it. But when I passed it by the director of the academy, she asked me—if I don’t wish to alienate my audience—why I would choose a title whose meaning is difficult to comprehend. What does this title have to do with my project?
Choosing a title can be difficult. We are not writing a doctoral thesis—our title doesn’t need to describe the meaning of a work. But what should a title do? What do the words scherzo or capriccio or impromptu do for Brahms, Schubert, Chopin? Are they at odds with the meaning of the pieces? Are they intentionally ambiguous? I often wonder if they are worse than calling a piece untitled. If untitled may not be helpful, at least it’s not misleading.
Daniel Mihalyo, a fellow in architecture at the academy, wrote to me:
In my opinion there are four types of titles:
- Titles that expand the meaning of an artwork by being open-ended and not too specific.
- Titles that are highly specific and that narrow the potential meanings of an artwork where the artist hopes to pin down a single definition.
- “No title” or “untitled” is always a safe option but it can be seen as evasive, expressing uncertainty or the best defense against any narrowing or specificity of meaning.
- Artsy titles that attempt to impart an intelligence beyond the value of the work….examples include word puns, smarty pant attempts to misdirect viewers or intentional references to better known artworks (like “The Thinker”).
I’ve also noticed that titles are also frequently indicative of the era and tend to by stylistically alike. Young Women on the Beach and The Sick Child are titles from a generation, as are titles from this year’s Whitney Biennial such as Museum of Failure: Collection of Impossible Subjects & Invisible Self-Portrait in my Studio and Crystal Chain Letter Complex (Dark Episode).
In the art world we have Piss Christ and Cremaster Cycle and of course lots and lots of Untitled. Does anyone get pissed off at works called Untitled? Does an abstract piece of art or music substantially gain power from its name?