Saturday, April 5, 2008


I swear I see what is better than to tell the best,
It is always to leave the best untold.
.......................................... . --Walt Whitman
Illustrator Robert Hilbert decided that the best way to convey a man who had hung himself was not to paint the noose around the man's neck, but to imply the event in a way that draws the viewer into the picture:

By exercising restraint, an artist compels the viewer to engage in the picture. When the viewer has to meet the artist halfway, it personalizes art and makes the experience more meaningful.

Sometimes artists receive unwanted help in deciding what parts of a picture to leave to the imagination. Congress famously required publisher Bill Gaines to explain how the following picture was "tasteful" merely because it refrained from showing where the woman's head had been severed:

Of course, today Gaines would have no trouble showing the severed neck and a whole lot more. Not only is there little risk in being daring, there's hardly any sport left in it either. I applaud artists who fight censorship, but many seem to have trouble distinguishing censorship from artistic restraint. Here's a hint: the former is your enemy, but the latter is your best friend.

For example, Walt Whitman paid a heavy price for the freedom to put anything he wanted in his explicit poems. But he recognized that a license to say anything doesn't mean he should say everything. There are separate aesthetic reasons to "leave the best untold."

This awful drawing from New York's Museum of Modern Art makes you yearn for the days of the Counter-reformation, when gloomy Vatican censors pasted fig leaves on art that dared to show human genitals:

But here is a selection of less explicit, more inspired images that succeed by "leaving the best untold."

The brilliant Milton Glaser conjures up a mood with a limited palette and a glimpse of thigh

A few simple lines on a plain background are enough to create an extraordinary effect on the viewer's imagination

Look at how evocative mere feet can be

If Tomer Hanuka's cover was more detailed or explicit, it would only lose some of its considerable heat

Our current freedoms might help us to achieve great artistic heights, but they are just as likely to lure artists into spelling out things in explicit detail that would have been artistically stronger if left untold.